Feature Stories

Cancer Crusher

Engineer uses organic chemistry to develop cancer therapies
  • Doctor holding sign that says "Stop Cancer."

“I’m developing dual-function nanoparticles that can allow us not only to create a balance in the immune system but also to monitor whether the drug is working in real time.”

- Ashish Kulkarni

One of the things Ashish Kulkarni loves about organic chemistry is the possibility of using his imagination to make beautiful molecules. He puts that creativity to work designing new therapies for cancer, an area that’s important to him because he’s lost close family members to the disease.

But he didn’t take a direct route to his current role as a cancer researcher.

After earning his undergraduate degree in India, Kulkarni worked in industry for three years before realizing his calling was in academia. For his Ph.D. research at the University of Cincinnati, he synthesized complex sugar molecules to use as disease diagnostics. “With glycans, I learned how to design molecules to understand biological processes,” he says.

As a postdoc at Harvard, Kulkarni put those skills to work devising nanoparticles that could act as cancer immunotherapies—drugs that prompt the immune system to home in on and attack cancer cells. Although cancer immunotherapies called checkpoint inhibitors melt away tumors in some people with cancer, they don’t work for everyone. Researchers have struggled to find a good diagnostic or biomarker to predict or track people’s responses to the treatments.

Kulkarni’s nanoparticle therapies could help address that quandary by simultaneously activating the immune system and lighting up if the treatment is working. “Disease develops in our body if there is an imbalance in the immune system,” Kulkarni says. “I’m developing dual-function nanoparticles that can allow us not only to create a balance in the immune system but also to monitor whether the drug is working in real time.”

One such nanoparticle is made of a polymeric backbone attached to a known checkpoint inhibitor and to a reporter molecule that’s released by an enzyme involved in the cell death pathway. With such a self-reporting treatment, doctors could quickly figure out whether patients are responding to the therapy.

The next phase of Kulkarni’s career launched when he set up shop at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. His lab there focuses on further developing the “immunotheranostic” nanoparticles and translating them to clinical use. Kulkarni’s lost close family members to cancer. This personal connection drives his passion for his work. Eventually, he hopes to start a company to bring his nanoparticles to people with cancer.

Three key papers

Combining Immune Checkpoint Inhibitors and Kinase-Inhibiting Supramolecular Therapeutics for Enhanced Anticancer Efficacy” (ACS Nano 2016, DOI: 10.1021/acsnano.6b01600)

Algorithm for Designing Nanoscale Supramolecular Therapeutics with Increased Anticancer Efficacy” (ACS Nano 2016, DOI: 10.1021/acsnano.6b00241)

Reporter Nanoparticle That Monitors Its Anticancer Efficacy in Real Time” (Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. USA 2016, DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1603455113)

By Celia Henry Arnaud

Reprinted from Chemical Engineering News