The researchers hope to develop new, non-invasive surgical techniques using ultrasound and laser technology which could be applied within the context of cancer and gene therapies.
Dr Paul Campbell, at the University of Dundee, and Professor Kishan Dholakia, of the University of St Andrews, have each been awarded more than £1 million through the UK ‘Basic Technology’ Programme, administered by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council.
The grant announcement follows on from preliminary research undertaken by the Dundee-St Andrews collaboration over the past year, which achieved a notable breakthrough in 2005 in understanding how cancer cells can be targeted and destroyed by a single pulse of ultrasound energy using a `sniper rifle’ approach developed from military technology.
Dr Campbell and Professor Dholakia, together with colleagues at their respective institutions, are now developing the techniques learned from their previous research to create tools which will revolutionise the delivery of genes, drugs and therapeutic molecules to single cells and tissue samples.
This new technology - utilising ultrasonics and photonics - promises to deliver a quantum leap for biologists studying the cell’s chemical pathways or signals.
The two University teams are now planning to combine the most useful aspects of both the ultrasound and laser techniques into an automated benchtop device for laboratory use.
The basis of the new technology involves a somewhat unexpected property of light: when sharply focused, it can actually exert a tangible force on real, albeit microscopic, objects. The sharply focused light can act like a miniaturised hand, ‘grabbing’ hold of tiny objects, and controllably moving them to other locations, a process termed ‘optical tweezing’.
Using this process, the scientists can gather arrays of cells and load them with molecules of choice, such as DNA or some other therapeutic agent.
Dr Campbell said, ‘The over-riding objective for this project is to revolutionise the activation and delivery of genes, drugs and therapeutic molecules into live biological materials.
‘Developing a means to controllably deliver drugs at remote anatomical sites, yet in a very non-invasive fashion, is a significant challenge of heightened academic and industrial interest. This is underscored by the market for delivery technologies which is estimated to be around 30 billion dollars in the USA alone.’
The ultrasound-based approach the scientists explored in the `sniper rifle’ project last year has now been augmented by a new technique developed at St Andrews using laser technology.
‘This dual approach technology allows us, in principle, to inject any molecule into any cell. Indeed, we have shown that even genetic material can be introduced into cells using the laser-based approach with successful downstream biological effects,” said Professor Dholakia.
The Universities of Dundee and St Andrews jointly host the Institute of Medical Science and Technology, a research and development initiative concentrating on interface science (between biology, physics and engineering) for future interventional medical technologies.
The collaboration between these disciplines is a key factor in the new project being led by Dr Campbell and Professor Dholakia, with key figures including Professor Sir Alfred Cuschieri, University of Dundee Medical School, and Professor Andrew Riches and Dr Frank Gunn-Moore, both of St Andrews University, supporting the research.
Roddy Isles | alfa
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