An assistant professor of medicine at Harvard has won a $4.1 million “Era of Hope” scholar award from the U.S. Defense Department’s Breast Cancer Research Program in support of his cutting-edge, interdisciplinary research aimed at fighting breast and other types of cancer.
Shiladitya Sengupta, an assistant professor in the Harvard-MIT Division of Health Sciences and Technology and an associate bioengineer at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, said the award has transformed his plans for his year-old lab, located in the Partners Research Building on Landsdowne Street in Cambridge.
Sengupta has set about recruiting innovative thinkers in several fields, in hopes that the perspectives gained from an interdisciplinary team will lead to new ways of thinking about an old enemy: cancer.
The new hires will almost double the size of his lab, from the current four to seven. Backgrounds of those in the lab now include molecular biology, mathematics, physics, and nanotechnology.
“There’s no boundaries. Everyone has to think laterally, across boundaries,” Sengupta said. “You have to have an open mind to get into the lab.”
Sengupta has had a busy year and a half since the publication, in July 2005, of a paper describing a new way of attacking tumors using existing drugs. The innovative approach uses tiny lipid nanospheres, called nanocells, loaded with a drug known to attack the blood vessels that provide nourishment to tumor cells. The spheres are injected into a patient and target the tumor, killing the blood vessels and sending the tumor into a stage of dormancy.
At this point, a second sphere contained within the first breaks down, releasing tiny amounts of chemotherapy drugs that kill the tumor cells themselves.
The double-whammy approach, first cutting off the blood supply with drugs from the outer lipid sphere and then attacking the tumor with targeted chemotherapy drugs released from an inner sphere, proved successful in mice and generated a lot of excitement.
The development got Sengupta mentioned in 2005 in MIT’s Technology Review magazine’s list of top technology innovators under the age of 35. It also attracted investors interested in developing the idea into therapies for human use. Sengupta has since founded a start-up company, Tempo Pharmaceuticals, to develop the advance. Although he is a founder of the company, it is currently being run by a team of professional leaders from the industry. They hope to begin clinical trials in two to three years.
Sengupta, who grew up in India and studied at the All India Institute of Medical Sciences, received a doctorate from Cambridge University and came to the United States to do postdoctoral work at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). He said he got the idea for the sphere inside a sphere in 2002 when he was riding on a Green Line train and spotted a vendor selling balloons with smaller balloons inside.
Today, Sengupta is working on extending the idea to other types of cancer and is also seeking a broader understanding of the growth of blood vessels inside tumors, which is very different from that in normal tissues. He’s specifically interested in the way chemical signals from the extracellular matrix – tissue inside the tumor that binds together the growing cells – control the way tumor cells and blood vessels grow.
By understanding that, he said, scientists will be able to better understand the best ways to attack a tumor, by better targeting drug delivery through a new generation of nanospheres.
The frenetic activity has kept Sengupta working seven-day weeks. His days typically start at 7 a.m. and don’t end until 2 a.m. Though he’s busy, he said he’s enjoying this time because he loves coming up with new ideas and implementing them. He said the grant has allowed him to take his lab’s activity to “a completely new level.”
“This is what excites me, coming up with ideas,” Sengupta said. “I can’t think of doing anything else.”