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STEM SIGHTS: The Concordian who uses lasers to advance chemotherapy

PhD candidate Paola Andrea Rojas Gutiérrez aims to make drug delivery systems more targeted and patient-specific
April 25, 2017
By Cecilia Keating

Paola Andrea Rojas Gutiérrez: “We want to develop a light-triggered drug delivery vehicle.” Paola Andrea Rojas Gutiérrez: “We want to develop a light-triggered drug delivery vehicle.”

Chemotherapy is notoriously heavy duty and untargeted — wiping out healthy cells alongside cancerous ones.

That’s why Concordia’s Lanthanide Research Group is investigating how to make cancer treatments safer and more efficient. They’re researching whether drug delivery systems can be triggered by light from near-infrared (NIR) lasers.

PhD student Paola Andrea Rojas Gutiérrez modifies the surface of nanoparticles, putting a membrane that contains both a drug and an ultraviolet (UV) light–sensitive molecule on them. The idea is that this molecule will be activated with UV light produced in situ by the nanoparticle, which is excited with NIR light from a laser. That light in turn will result in a controlled drug release.

‘The ultimate goal is to create person-specific treatments’

How does the specific image (top) relate to your research at Concordia? 

Paola Andrea Rojas Gutiérrez: In the picture, a titanium sapphire laser is being pumped with an argon ion laser — the green light — in order to generate NIR light. We use this to excite nanomaterials developed in our lab and study their optical properties.

What is the hoped-for result of your project?

PARG: I am working with lanthanide upconverting nanoparticles that have the attractive optical property of producing higher energy light from lower energy irradiation. Upon NIR excitation, the nanoparticles produce light in the UV, visible and NIR regions — a process called “upconversion.” 

The aim of the project is to synthesize a drug delivery system using upconverting nanoparticles where the release of the drug can be controlled with NIR light.

I modified the surface of these nanoparticles with a supported lipid bilayer that mimics a cell's membrane, thus designing a system to encapsulate drugs inside. Then, by also adding a UV light-sensitive molecule to the membrane which can be triggered by the emission of light from the nanoparticle, we may achieve a controlled drug release.

Design of the drug delivery system (left), and electron microscopy images of the nanoparticles and the nanoparticles with the membrane modification. Design of the drug delivery system (left), and electron microscopy images of the nanoparticles and the nanoparticles with the membrane modification.

What impact could you see it having on people's lives?

PARG: I envision this system improving medical treatment of diseases such as cancer. Using a light-triggered drug delivery vehicle, chemotherapy would be released at the tumor site rather than on both healthy and malignant cells. This system would decrease the drug dose and increase the treatment’s efficiency.

What are some of the major challenges you face in your research?

PARG: The optimization of the synthetic procedure of the nanoparticles was a challenge. It took me six months to find the proper conditions. During that time I had to stay focused, motivated and, above all, not get discouraged.

In order to overcome the problem, I had to carefully evaluate each of the parameters of the reaction and find creative solutions to control each variable.

What are some of the key areas where your work could be applied?

PARG: Medical science needs the development of nanomaterials to improve diagnosis and treatment of diseases. Our ultimate goal is to aid personalized medicine and create person-specific treatments. 

What person, experience or moment in time first inspired you to study this subject and get involved in the field?

PARG: I was first curious about how cosmetic products, such as creams and lotions, work. For example, some anti-aging lotions have liposomes (tiny bubbles made out of the same material as a cell membrane that can be filled with drugs) that contain an active ingredient to decrease wrinkles. My desire to understand those kinds of systems brought me into nanoscience. 

I pursued chemistry and chemical engineering while studying in Colombia, and now I'm doing my PhD at Concordia.

How can interested STEM students get involved in this line of research?

PARG: I highly recommend that students volunteer in the Lanthanide Research Group laboratories. They can gain experience and get a closer view of our work. Also, they should read relevant published papers and discuss the field with professors and graduate students to get a better understanding of nanoscience.

I would advise that students choose a research project they're passionate about because research requires dedication and, oftentimes, sacrifice.

What do you like best about being at Concordia?

PARG: I like the novel and multidisciplinary research the Lanthanide Research Group is doing. It brings together students and postdoctoral fellows from chemistry, biochemistry and physics.

We are looking at the biological application of nanomaterials, so a multidisciplinary approach is crucial and having people with different backgrounds allows us to approach problems from many perspectives. My supervisor, John Capobianco, has established collaborations with colleagues from other disciplines.

How is your team involved in Science Odyssey?

PARG: I am the head organizer of the Science Odyssey events that we're developing through the Faculty of Arts and Science.

We're designing a laser display in my lab that will demonstrate how nanomaterials interact with light. It’s called “Fiat lux: Let there be light.” This display will be accessible to the public on May 12.

Also, images of the nanoparticles that we synthesized in our lab will be part of the Lab Life Image Gallery, which will be exhibited from May 12 to 21 in the Engineering, Computer Science and Visual Arts Integrated Complex (EV) and the Richard J. Renaud Science Complex (SP).

Are there any partners, agencies or other funding and support attached to your research? 

PARG: The research that we do in Capobianco’s lab is funded by the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC), the Centre québécois sur les matériaux fonctionnels, the Ministère de l’Économie, de la Science et de l'Innovation, the Fonds de Recherche du Québec - Nature et Technologies and Concordia.

I received a loan-scholarship from a Colombian non-profit foundation called Colfuturo and have also received fellowships and scholarships from Concordia.

Find out more about Science Odyssey at Concordia.



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