Are Nanoparticles the Answer to the Question: Is it Working? An Interview with MRA Young Investigator, Dr. Ashish Kulkarni

By Cody R. Barnett, MRA Director of Communications | 4 October 2017 | Science

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When we think about cancer researchers, we don’t always think of engineers. Dr. Ashish Kulkarni proves that maybe, we should. His pioneering work as a chemical engineer is helping us answer the critical, yet difficult to answer question that is at the forefront of every patient’s mind as they start treatment: ‘is it working? 

When we know that treatments are working early on in the treatment process, patients and their doctors can better monitor what is happening and if needed, pivot to other therapies sooner. But for melanoma, knowing for a fact that treatment is working isn’t always straightforward. Checkpoint inhibitors are wonder drugs for some people, but in others they don’t work at all. It can sometimes take months to observe measurable progress. Doctors have struggled to predict or track how the drugs are working in the early stages of treatment.

This is where Dr. Kulkarni’s research comes into play. He has developed a dual-action nanoparticle therapy that not only activates the immune system to better target the cancer, it also produces a signal to doctors when it detects an enzyme called caspase-3 that is actively involved in cancer cell death. This technology, supported in part by a 2017 MRA Young Investigator Award is currently being developed for the clinical setting. If successful, it could give patients and doctors a clearer indication whether treatment is working.

Such an approach is dubbed ‘theranostics’ because you get a therapeutic and a diagnostic agent in the same medication. “This self-reporting information is key because it allows you to make better decisions earlier. Saving time can also save lives,” says Kulkarni.

Immunotherapy is also not without risks of its own. In fact, severe reactions occur in around a quarter of patients with some immunotherapy agents and over 50% when these drugs are used in combination. Dr. Ashish believes that his nanoparticles can help providers get the desired effect of a medication at much lower dose – which could mitigate and reduce these adverse reactions. “Some drugs work but they are highly toxic. Getting the right amount of drug that can have efficacy in tumors such as melanoma is challenging. We are using this nanoparticle system that can help us deliver the right amount of drug to the tumor while reducing side effects,” says Kulkarni.

Photo of Dr. KulkarniChemical and Engineering News (C&EN’s) recently nicknamed Kulkarni as the ‘Cancer Crusher’ when they named him to their Talented Twelve list for 2017. The prestigious Talented Twelve list recognizes 12 promising young scientists each year who are doing groundbreaking work that has the potential to transform the world. “My peers, who were also nominated, are doing research that has the potential to change society and I feel honored to have been nominated among them,” says Kulkarni.

Kulkarni was awarded a Melanoma Research Alliance Young Investigator Award in April 2017. This support will allow him to build out his lab and research program focused on immuno-engineering at University of Massachusetts. He hopes his work could potentially provide fundamental insight into cancer immunotherapy response, giving doctors and their patients the information they need to make the best decisions possible.

Kulkarni believes that immunotherapy is a breakthrough that has changed the entire approach to oncology. “There is so much groundbreaking work that is happening and I’m very excited that I’m involved. If we are successful at overcoming challenges, we are on the right track to cure cancer.” 

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