Fundamental research on water-soluble polymers that began several years ago in the campus’s Materials Research Science and Engineering Center has led to new chemistry with implications for cancer therapies.
Emrick (above left) serves as director of the Materials Research Science and Engineering Center (MRSEC) at UMass Amherst, a National Science Foundation (NSF) center that has been active for more than 30 years. Campus strengths in polymer science continue to land the NSF support—about $2.2 million annually. MRSEC enables polymer scientists, chemists, physicists, and engineers to work side-by-side on cutting-edge research as well as forge industry collaborations.
Fundamental research on water-soluble polymers (with origins in MRSEC) that began several years ago has led to new chemistry with implications for cancer therapies. With funding from the National Institutes of Health (NIH), Emrick and the team are working with veterinary and animal scientist Sallie Schneider at the Pioneer Valley Life Sciences Institute on polymeric vehicles that improve the efficacy of cancer therapies. By adding these polymers to potential therapies, their research is showing they are capable of turning unusable water-insoluble compounds into water-soluble drugs that can then be taken up into tumor tissue. That conversion enables researchers to experiment with cancer therapies once considered unusable. The additives also make drug molecules larger, allowing the drugs to remain in the body longer, thus increasing their likelihood of reaching the targeted cancerous tissue. Graduate students Samantha McRae, Matt Skinner, and Sangram Parelkar are working closely with Schneider and Baystate Chief of Surgical Oncology Richard Arenas to identify cancer treatments that could most benefit from these polymeric additives.
“Many of the drugs that we have today are not used nearly to their full potential because they are eliminated too quickly,” Emrick explains.
“It’s really good when companies get involved because they bring a perspective that is practical…it helps you think in a more practical way,” Emrick says.
Emrick says he always knew he loved chemistry, yet was struck in college by the notion of creating entirely new molecules. He remains captivated by this drive, along with a passion for the scientific process—qualities he proudly passes on to his students.
“If it’s new, that’s good. If it’s new and useful, that’s better. If it’s new and useful, and teaches us something—that’s what we try to do,” Emrick says.
Amanda Drane '12