Professor’s potentially live-saving breakthrough

Photo courtesy of Abby Vogel, Georgia Tech

When it comes to the modern field of medicine, the so-called War on Cancer is a daily battle in which thousands of researchers work worldwide in efforts to combat the development and growth of cancer clusters. It seems one Tech professor has done just that.

Ravi Bellamkonda is a current professor and researcher in the Department of Biomedical Engineering. He and his team, rather than actually try eradicating or removing a tumor, did something revolutionary: they tried moving it, and with much success.

“Brain tumors are tough to treat not because we don’t have nasty chemicals to kill tumors, but because the tumor is always moving,” Bellamkonda said. “We were thinking about these two things, you know, how do we design something to deal with inoperable tumors and how do we deal with ways to catch this moving target, and we were always thinking about how do I stop it, how do I contain it.”

After much testing and seeing how tumors grow, replicate and move, Bellamkonda’s lab came up with the polymer nanofibers, which contain a thin film that replicates the pathway a tumor normally uses to grow. Thus, the tumor would, in essence, be able to be moved and contained in its size; however, this process took Bellamkonda and his team much time to perfect.

“There’s a certain humility when you work with the human body. Unlike airplanes, where every single rivet, screw, material, wire we designed and put it there, with the human body, we still discover processes that are critical to our function,” Bellamkonda said.

Bellamkonda and his team wanted to make sure the polymer would only aid in the transportation and containment of cancer cells and that they didn’t perpetuate growth in the tumor.

“How do you know, for example, when we design this path we’re not just making more room for the tumor to grow and not actually moving the tumor,” Bellamkonda said. “The tumor might easily say, ‘oh thank you very much, I got this space to grow now because you gave me this room!’”

This technology pushes the so-called War on Cancer to a new level where scientists may turn to not completely removing a cluster of cancer cells, but instead, focus on containing the growth.

“If I can manage a tumor and keep it to a certain, smaller size, and it’s not bothering my other functions, you know, that’s how it is,” Bellamkonda said. “Is that preferable? No. Ideally I’d like to be cancer-free and prevent it from ever coming back. But because cancers are so clever, I’m not optimistic that we’ll completely eradicate them from ever happening, it’s just tough.”

Maybe cancer can’t be fully eradicated, but that doesn’t mean one day it won’t affect our lives as it does currently.

“Ultimately what might happen is, just as we don’t view diabetes as a death sentence; just as we don’t view arthritis as a death sentence, before we getting to curing cancer, which I hope we will at some point, I think we will learn to make it irrelevant as a life threatening disease,” Bellamkonda said. “We will learn to figure out how to manage it and have a decent quality of life.”