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A new approach to tumor treatment

On Wednesday, September 24th in Lehigh's Iacocca Hall, Dr. Rakesh Jain presented his research on tumor treatments to an audience of scientists and engineers from a number of different fields.

“Blood vessels are single input and single output…engineers are used to that,” says Rakesh K. Jain, of his decision to study tumors after graduating with a Ph.D. in chemical engineering.


Rakesh Jain



As part of the annual Schiesser Lecture Series, Jain came to Lehigh to present his cutting-edge research in the field of tumor treatment. The William E. Schiesser series is an annual lecture in interdisciplinary scientific computation. Organized by the Department of Chemical Engineering, the series is supported by a fund established by Dolores T. Schiesser, wife of Lehigh alumnus and professor emeritus of chemical engineering and mathematics, William E. Schiesser.

Dr. Jain is the Andrew Werk Cook Professor of Tumor Biology in the Department of Radiation Oncology at Harvard Medical School, and the Director of the Edwin L. Steele Laboratory of Tumor Biology at Massachusetts General Hospital. Prior to joining Harvard in 1991, he served as assistant professor of chemical engineering at Columbia University (1976-78), and as assistant (1978-79), associate (1979-83) and full professor (1983-91) of chemical engineering at Carnegie Mellon University. Jain studies blood flow in tumors and works to develop new treatments that will allow drugs to more effectively eliminate cancers.

Dr. Jain proposes that the reason why typical drug treatment is rarely a permanent solution for destroying tumors is that the blood vessels in the growth are abnormal. Although cancerous cells comprise only about half of the tumor those that are affected do not circulate blood properly.

In fact, the tumor cuts off blood flow from a large section of itself. Cancer therapy relies on the blood vessel network to transport drugs, so when blood fails to reach a portion of the tumor, so does the treatment.

One of the dysfunctions of tumor cells is that they are too permeable and tend to leak. VEGF (vascular endothelial growth factor) is a protein found in the blood that, among other things, increases the permeability of blood vessels.

Avastin®, a drug recently developed to arrest the process of forming new capillaries (a process called angiogenesis), also halts the production of VEGF.

Dr. Jain has discovered that using Avastin to stop the creation of VEGF allows a window of time in which the blood vessels can repair themselves—become less permeable—before they start to starve from lack of nutrients. According to Dr. Jain, the vessels are “not normal, but normalized,” for a period of only a few days.

The “normalized” tumor vessels transport blood through more of the growth during that window than before. Because treatment will reach more of the tumor, Dr. Jain and his team believe that this is the most effective time to introduce the chemotherapy that will work to destroy the tumor.

Dr. Jain is also working on another process to treat fibrotic tumors. In the lab, he and his team have found that collagenase and relaxin may improve the distribution of the medication inside a tumor. Jain explains that the amount currently required to weaken the tumor is harmful for humans, but he is patiently working for an alternative. “Medicine takes time,” he says, “and it should.”

One of the problems facing researchers is that tumor cells change over time. “In other diseases, you don’t have cells that mutate,” says Jain. “In cancer, the cells mutate.”

According to Jain, it is possible that future treatments might include tailored therapy. “We’re trying to see how one tumor is different from another genetically,” he says. Finding the differences between tumors could help him understand how they work, and therefore treat them more efficiently.

“We’re on a journey that began 34 years ago,” Jain says. “We’re trying to get inside and figure out how tumors function.”

—Christine Rapp


Posted on Wednesday, October 15, 2008

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