Targeting one disease, and then another

08/07/2007
By Used with permission from the Lowell Sun Online.

By DAVID PERRY
Sun Staff

LOWELL - Thanks to what he calls a 'serendipitous finding,' Thomas Shea and a team of researchers from UMass Lowell are exploring promising research in battling cancerous tumors.

For 25 years, Billerica resident Shea, 52, has been researching Alzheimer's disease, the last 12 at UMass Lowell. He will continue on that path.

But over the past year, working closely with Arthur Watterson, a professor emeritus of chemistry, Shea has been studying a way to deliver antioxidants to slow or halt the tumors caused by neuroblastoma, the second most common form of cancer in children after leukemia.

Alone, antioxidants don't do the job. But delivered in microscopic orbs, there is promise.

Shea cautions that while exciting, the work is still a long way from even human trials. The findings have yet to be published in a scientific journal, and no one is calling it a cure.

Rani George, a pediatric oncologist at Dana Farber Cancer Institute in Boston says that while the duo's work is 'still in the experimental stage' and requires much future research, the preliminary work is 'quite exciting,' and 'shows promise.' George specializes in neuroblastoma and invited Shea to a Dec. 8 retreat with doctors, researchers and parents of children with the disease.

'All were very impressed with Dr. Shea,' she said.

'Our hope is that it slows tumor growth and gives clinicians more time to do their treatments,' says Shea. 'It's a procedure that augments treatment.'

It's all in the delivery, says Shea, sitting in his fifth-floor office in UMass Lowell's Olsen Hall. Antioxidants, which prevent cell damage, halted neuron growth during the Alzheimer's study. He wondered, 'could this work in neuroblastoma?'

Neuroblastoma is a cancer of nerve cells involved in the development of the nervous system and other tissues. It most often occurs in the adrenal glands, which release hormones to maintain blood pressure. Most children who get neuroblastoma are under 5 years old.

'Simply injecting the antioxidants wouldn't work,' says Shea.

'It's like when you take vitamins. They go right through the body. They don't attach to one place.'

Chemistry professor Watterson has long been working with nanospheres, bubble-like spheres that are one millionth of a meter large, and when the men loaded antioxidants into the nanospheres and injected them into immune-deficient lab mice, they went directly to the tumors and halted growth.

'We had injected them with dye and could follow them,' says Shea. 'It worked better than we expected.'

They had found a delivery system.

Once the antioxidants arrived in tumors, 'we were hoping for 20 percent reduction, maybe. We didn't know what to expect. But it was better than that. It completely stopped growth in a day. It didn't kill the cancer, but kept the cells from growing.'

And antioxidants don't have harmful side effects, either, notes Shea. 'They're actually good for you.'

Shea and Watterson plan to see if injections into mice of antioxidant-filled nanospheres can seek out the tumors with a single injection.

That's important for treatment of neuroblastoma, says Shea, because it would minimize invasive procedures of children's bodies.

'Children don't have the tolerance for chemotherapy and radiation treatment like (adults) do,' says Shea. 'Their bodies are still growing.'

The studies are being funded by a $170,000 grant from the National Cancer Institute, 'a push to get us started,' as Shea puts it. 'There's a lot of work ahead and a lot of data to gather.'

And many younger folks to inspire him.

'It's different looking at a child who's 5, and they have this big smile, like on a Christmas card. And knowing they're in pain and have this awful disease.'

He came to UMass Lowell after a decade at Harvard Medical School, 'where I was very happy. But I came up here and just fell in love with the place.'

Graduate student Lydia Kifle and Robert Nicolosi, professor of Health and Clinical Sciences, also participated in the research.

David Perry's e-mail address is dperry@lowellsun.com .