Season 1, Episode 10: Chasing Cancer With Gold

October 22, 2018 The SoundCloud content at https://soundcloud.com/user-730756213/sciencematters-season-1-episode-10-chasing-cancer-with-gold is not available, or it is set to private.
Download this episode

Mostafa El-Sayed, Regents Professor and Julius Brown Chair in the School of Chemistry and Biochemistry, is working on a promising cancer treatment based on gold nanoparticles. His work is inspired by, and dedicated to, his late wife, who died from the disease.

(Upbeat music)

Renay San Miguel:

Hello, I’m Renay San Miguel, and this is ScienceMatters, the podcast of the Georgia Tech College of Sciences.

He is one of the most celebrated professors ever to work at Georgia Tech, with research that spans 60 years.

Mostafa El-Sayed has won just about every major award in the field of chemistry. Since joining Georgia Tech in 1994, he’s brought honor to the Institute with his work in both spectroscopy – the study of how matter interacts with light and other types of radiation – and nanoscience, the study of phenomena on the nanometer scale. A nanometer is one-billionth of a meter.

One of the greatest accolades for the Regents Professor and Julius Brown Chair in the School of Chemistry and Biochemistry, happened in 2007 at the White House.

(Applause)

White House Announcer:

The 2007 National Medal of Science to Mostafa A. El-Sayed, for his seminal contributions to our understanding of the electronic and optical properties of nanomaterials and to their applications in nanocatalysis and nanomedicine, his humanitarian efforts in promoting the exchange of ideas, and his role in developing the scientific leadership of tomorrow.

(Applause)

Renay San Miguel:

That’s from a video of El-Sayed receiving the National Medal of Science from then-President George W. Bush during an Oval Office ceremony. The video was recorded by the National Medal of Science, Technology, and Innovation Foundation, which also prepared a brief biographical video for the occasion, touting the highlights of El-Sayed’s career:

Narrator:

Mostafa El-Sayed has contributed to an astonishing array of research areas with the common theme of how light impacts the smallest of particles.

Mostafa El-Sayed:

I work in spectroscopy, that is the interaction of light with molecules, and that’s exactly what I do up to now even, and it was wonderful to move in all different directions with it.”

Renay San Miguel:

El-Sayed’s work in spectroscopy is so influential that this branch of science has the El-Sayed Rule, which governs how electrons behave during photochemical transitions. If you’re studying spectroscopy, you’ll probably find it in your textbook.

El-Sayed’s legacy in spectroscopy and nanoscience also brought him the American Chemical Society’s greatest honor, the Priestley Medal, in 2016. He won that at the age of 82.

Longtime subscribers to the Journal of Physical Chemistry may know that he was editor-in-chief of that publication for 24 years. Under his leadership, the Journal split into two sections to accommodate the rapid growth of research in the field.

So now you know that Mostafa El-Sayed is indeed a celebrated professor and researcher. At Georgia Tech, he became a pioneer in nanoscience, and forged a new path in studying how materials manifest new properties as they shrink to the nanometer scale.

His latest research involves the combination of gold nanoparticles and infrared light to heat and destroy cancer cells.

What you may not know about El-Sayed is that his work to treat cancer…has special meaning for him.

In 2004, El-Sayed’s wife, Janice, died of the disease.

Mostafa El-Sayed:

The enemy is cancer. Because of her. I’ve seen it in person to her. So, billions of people see it in their family. I get email every day.

(Music)

Renay San Miguel:

In the early 1990s, Mostafa and Janice were finishing up a successful 37-year run at UCLA. That was where he and his research team established the El-Sayed Rule.

And Janice was getting homesick.

Mostafa El-Sayed:

She’s from Florida. I promised her after we’re finished here, we go to Florida, or back to the Southeast (laughter), close to her family, and have a real relaxation time. But then meanwhile, I start reading a little bit about nanotechnology and it got really interesting, to do new things, you know?

Renay San Miguel:

Around the same time, Georgia Tech had just established a fully separate College of Sciences, and was looking for top researchers to call it home.

Mostafa El-Sayed:

Georgia Tech, when I came here, science was not done at all, it was all engineering because they were very good at it and they did beautiful work, they still are.

What Georgia Tech did, they told me, we’ll give you the money you want, ah! I can buy all the equipment for nanotechnology.

Renay San Miguel:

El-Sayed quickly agreed. He continued his spectroscopy research, and also began building a nanoscience research team.

Mostafa El-Sayed:

We were using properties of nanoparticles. I came here to do nanotechnology. Size, shape, this metal versus solid other things, but as we cut it further to that small size, what the change of the properties are. And as you decrease it more and more, the property itself is changing. So we’re in a world that it gives us many properties for many materials. Metals or semi-conductor material or anything – once you get to this nano size, the property is different; the motion of the electrons differ.

Renay San Miguel:

He and his researchers soon began looking at how various metals could interact with specific light frequencies to cause changes at the cellular level, which could have medical applications.

Again, here’s the National Medal of Science, Technology, and Innovation video from 2007:

Narrator:

El-Sayed is also investigating how the interaction of particles with laser light can provide long-sought medical advances.

Mostafa El-Sayed:

In terms of the biology end of things, of course, all the function are at the nanoscale. The components of the cells, all of them, every one of them, is at nanoscale, so if you try to change the function of a cell, or enhance it, or kill it, or whatever you want to do with it, you have to have something of the same scale.

Renay San Miguel:

As his professional life continued to yield scientific results, he and his wife came to treasure their time in the South, close to her family.

Mostafa El-Sayed:

We had a wonderful ten years. My kids, every summer, we had them close in the South, here from different places. All of them come here and they get to know their family. It’s wonderful.

Renay San Miguel:

In the late 1990s, Janice was diagnosed with breast cancer. El-Sayed saw firsthand the effects of the disease on a loved one, as well as the limitations of existing treatments. He began to research possible medical applications for his nanoscience research, thanks in part to his wife’s physician at Emory University Hospital.

Mostafa El-Sayed:

I start reading. Her doctor was wonderful. She was at Emory and she knew that I wanted to know. I told her we’re getting into this field, and every time she took time to get me papers to give to me to read, to ask her questions. So I always, in talks, I give her credit because she was my teacher. I never knew anything about medicine, you know? Nothing.

Renay San Miguel:

The fact that you knew someone who was going through this, and so that did impact the direction of your research?

Mostafa El-Sayed:

Oh absolutely. I never would have done medicine if she was not sick. Absolutely.

Renay San Miguel:

It was frustrating for Mostafa to see Janice endure chemotherapy, one of the traditional ways doctors treat cancer, along with surgery and radiation.

Mostafa El-Sayed:

Chemotherapy is very complicated treatment. It works for a little bit. My wife used it for three or four months, and then it doesn’t work anymore. And so, it’s terrible, and it really affects the person quite a bit.

Renay San Miguel:

Despite progress in his nanomedicine research, El-Sayed’s work was still in the early stages.

Mostafa El-Sayed:

I could not do anything for her.

(Music)

Renay San Miguel:

Janice died in 2004.

Mostafa pressed on with his research, this time joined by his son Ivan, then a cancer surgeon at the University of California in San Francisco Medical Center.

Father and son and El-Sayed’s research team started focusing on gold as their metal of choice for killing cancer cells.

Mostafa El-Sayed:

That is when we start showing that first of all you can – how we can add the gold nanoparticles to go and bind only to cancer cells.

Renay San Miguel:

In early work to make the gold nanorods bind only to cancer cells, El-Sayed covered the nanoparticles with cancer cell-seeking molecules.

Mostafa El-Sayed:

Leaving the healthy cells alone, only to the cancer cells. And all what you have to know, what are the chemicals on the surface of the cancer cell, and you find the chemical known to bind to it. It is not a big thing, you know. And we tried this and boy, it did. But more important, in the beginning we can use it to identify if the blood has cancer or not – take the patient and take some of the blood in the solution and you have some solution bare nanorod, but only will attach molecules that loves to bind to the cover of the gold nanoparticle. And they were, ‘Oh, they stuck together!’ (Laughter)

Renay San Miguel:

And that’s the binding. It was the basic chemical process.

Mostafa El-Sayed:

Exactly, exactly. And then you take it under a microscope – a simple microscope; you shine light. The gold nanorod has ability to scatter the light. So if hit it with light, you get brilliant light coming back at you. And that means it is surrounding the cancer cell. So you see the whole image of the cancer cell.

Renay San Miguel:

Later studies showed that it was not necessary to attach cancer-cell-seeking molecules to the gold nanorods. Now the gold nanorods they use in experiments are just treated to remain stable in solution.

El-Sayed told me how he envisions treatment would ensue with human patients. Keep in mind: none of this has been tested in humans. This potential cancer treatment still needs more work and rigorous testing.

Mostafa El-Sayed:

When it was very, very small, and we make it in a cylinder shape, and we have it in solution, and then we inject it in solution into the person with cancer, we inject in the breast, everywhere.

And then we expose now the breast, now to light that goes through the human body -- near-infrared light -- it goes inside. This little nanoparticle absorbs the light and becomes hot potatoes, really hot, melts everything around it, all the cells melt away.

Renay San Miguel:

However, the treatment has been tested on mice, in partnership with scientists at Emory University. Results showed promise in destroying cancer cells.

El-Sayed’s team learned something else in its most recent research, and it wrote about that in a 2017 study: The heat from near-infrared light scattering around gold nanorods kept cancer cells from spreading to other healthy tissue.

Mostafa El-Sayed:

Because the heat melts away their legs. It is their legs that direct them, to go this way, go this way. “And then inside also there are longer proteins. The heat breaks it into smaller proteins, therefore the long proteins that used to change its shape and give energy to the cell, it’s not there anymore. So the cell cannot get energy from its own protein because it’s gone, it’s melting away.

The number of people that die of cancer is huge, and the problem is there is no hope for it. Once they get it, it just keeps moving from one place to another.

The good thing about this method is it cannot move from one place to the other.

Renay San Miguel:

Thanks to El-Sayed’s contacts with researchers at Cairo University, two teams in Egypt, his native country, are now testing the gold nanorods in dogs and cats with cancer. He hopes that human testing will begin soon.

Mostafa El-Sayed:

We have to be careful. We haven’t tried it on humans yet. On animals it does not move but it might do that in humans. Something else can happen, I don’t know.

And the human is different than mice, and cats and dogs, horses. We’ve done it on horses and camels. A camel doesn’t get it anyway. Camels don’t get cancer actually, anyway.

Renay San Miguel:

Camels don’t get cancer!

Yeah, they don’t get cancer.

Renay San Miguel:

Here’s something that cancer researchers know, but many of us might not: Certain animals have an abundance of a particular cancer-fighting gene, so they either rarely get the disease, or not at all. Elephants, naked mole rats, and camels are part of this group.

Mostafa El-Sayed:

Some animals are just blessed by God, I guess.

Renay San Miguel:

Word of El-Sayed’s research has reached far and wide. His office has been swamped with messages from people who either have cancer, or have a loved one with the disease.

El-Sayed thinks of whom he has lost to cancer, and is determined to see this research through to its conclusion.

Mostafa El-Sayed:

I get a lot of emails from all over, from all over. But until we really do it on humans, we really have to be careful. We have to devise the best method for the human, and also we have to be careful because cancer can be in a place where it is hidden, we cannot get to it with the gold nanoparticles or the light. That’s a lot of work that needs to be done by the physicists and people that have the light inside the body, and they’ve been working on this quite a bit actually.

(Upbeat music)

Renay San Miguel:

El-Sayed is impressed with early results from other experimental cancer treatments. Nevertheless, he is betting on gold nanoparticles, because of their early promise in keeping the disease from spreading. Besides, cancer treatment needs as many tools as scientists like El-Sayed can offer. His goal now is to take his cancer-killing gold nanoparticles through rigorous human testing.

I thank Mostafa El-Sayed for sharing his professional, and personal, stories with me. We also thank the National Medal of Science, Technology and Innovation Foundation for allowing us to use audio from their 2007 videos celebrating National Medal of Science winners.

Siyan Zhou, formerly a research associate in the School of Psychology, composed our theme music.

This is ScienceMatters, the podcast of the Georgia Tech College of Sciences. I’m Renay San Miguel. Thanks for listening.

(Music)