The biochemical mysteries of how cancer occurs, grows, and spreads are areas of intense study in centers and bioscience labs around the world, but engineers also are applying their particular perspectives to understanding and stopping cancer in its tracks.
Aleksander Popel, a professor of biomedical engineering at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, is one such engineer. As the director of the Systems Biology Laboratory, he studies the processes and pathways of cancer growth and spread.
In one trajectory, he is developing novel peptide-based drugs to halt angiogenesis, the process by which cancer tumors establish the new blood vessels necessary for them to thrive. Peptides are short chains of amino acids that mimic the body's own biochemical mechanisms, in this case to prevent the formation of new capillaries. Popel and a fellow Hopkins biomedical engineer, Jordan Green, have formed a company, AsclepiX Therapeutics, to explore the potential of these drugs.
In another angle of his research, Popel is studying how cancer metastasizes—how it spreads from one bodily system to others.
"Ultimately, metastasis is what kills the patient," Popel says. "But, if we can disrupt the chemical processes that lead to and enable metastasis, we hope to shut it down."
Popel is applying his understanding of metastasis to several kinds of cancers, including glioblastomas in the brain and certain aggressive breast cancers. Recently, Popel and his team identified the metastatic processes by which triple-negative breast cancer spreads. This cancer, which is typically chemotherapy-resistant, is a particularly invasive one with poor prognosis for the patient.
Using a combination of animal experiments and advanced computer models, Popel and his team identified the biochemical processes by which tumors in the breast lay the groundwork for metastasis in distant organs. Popel, ever the engineer, went one step beyond that insight and is now testing drugs in an effort to disrupt metastasis. The drugs he has chosen are already FDA-approved for treatment of other diseases, which should greatly speed them to market if they prove effective in human trials.
"We are engineers. We see a problem, like cancer, and we want to understand the mechanisms behind the complex microenvironment. Then, we try to find a solution," Popel says. "It's challenging work, but it's very rewarding."