NSF recognizes JHU professor for cancer treatment research

Cui receives CAREER Award for work involving cancer-fighting nanostructures

A Johns Hopkins engineer who is designing cancer-fighting nano-size structures that could assemble themselves and deliver treatment to diseased tissue has received a Faculty Early Career Development (CAREER) Award from the National Science Foundation.

Image caption: Honggang Cui

Honggang Cui, an assistant professor in the Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering at Johns Hopkins, has been given this honor, which is accompanied by nearly $500,000 that will be disbursed over five years. The funds will support Cui's research, which is aimed at producing a more effective and targeted way to provide cancer treatment.

A current method of delivering anti-cancer drugs is to enclose them in a nanoscale carrier made of natural or synthetic materials. However, Cui explained, this method presents several challenges. "The amount of drug that can be loaded into each carrier is very limited," he said, "and even within the same batch, the amount of drug being delivered can vary from one carrier to another. Another problem is that the carrier material itself may have toxic side effects."

To make this process safer and more effective, Cui is trying to eliminate the need for a separate, non-therapeutic carrier. To accomplish this, he is trying to coax the drug molecules themselves to form their own delivery vessels through a process of self-assembly. His team is developing new molecular engineering strategies to put together anti-cancer drugs as supramolecular nanostructures, meaning they consist of more than one molecule. "Such supramolecules could carry a fixed, full dose of the anti-cancer drug within each nanostructure, and this would minimize the potential of toxicity in the carrier itself," Cui said.

Konstantinos Konstantopoulos, chair of the Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering, said that "unlike the general methods that use artificial nanostructures as vehicles to deliver anti-cancer drugs or molecular probes, Dr. Cui's goal is to produce nanostructures that are made of drugs or molecular probes that can deliver themselves. This novel approach, which requires cutting-edge expertise in the areas of chemical and biomedical engineering, nanotechnology and chemistry, will have a major impact on the field of drug delivery and cancer diagnosis."

Konstantopoulos added, "This is a new and exciting research area. Dr. Cui possesses the necessary engineering skills, deep nanotechnology and chemistry insight, and creative scientific vision to become a leader in this multidisciplinary field."

Cui completed his bachelor's and master's degree studies at Beijing University of Chemical Technology and Tsinghua University in China. He earned his doctoral degree in materials science and engineering from the University of Delaware, and then obtained postdoctoral training at Northwestern University. He joined the faculty of the JHU School of Engineering in August 2010. He is affiliated with the university's Institute for NanoBioTechnology.

The prestigious CAREER award, given to faculty members at the beginning of their academic careers, is one of the NSF's most competitive awards and emphasizes high-quality research and novel education initiatives. It provides funding so that young investigators have the opportunity to focus more intently on furthering their research careers.