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Nanoparticles for cancer therapies and diagnosis.


Dr Helen Townley


My group focuses on applications of nanoparticle technologies for treating and diagnosing cancers, particularly in children.

Studies into paediatric oncology are underrepresented in cancer research programmes. In 2011 the National Cancer Institute’s investment in all paediatric cancers was $195.5 million, while the investment for breast cancer research alone that year was $625 million. This may be due to the fact that childhood cancers fall into the orphan disease category with 12,060 new cases of paediatric cancer diagnosed in children aged 0–14 years in the US in 2012. However, cancer is still the leading cause of death by disease amongst U.S. children. It is not sufficient to assume that therapies for adults can simply be translated to paediatric cancers. Adults and children have different tolerance and response to treatments, and in fact children generally tolerate chemotherapy better than adults since they are less likely to have other health issues such as heart disease. In one study the maximum tolerated dose was shown to be 30% higher for half of the drugs tested and because the dose response curve is very steep, small increments can significantly influence efficacy.

We aim to capitalize on our expertise in nanoparticles synthesis, as a means of drug delivery, protection of the compound from degradation, and for co-delivery of drugs in a defined ratio. Combination therapy is a powerful and effective therapeutic regimen in the treatment of cancers, which can generate increased efficacy and reduced side effects, leading to optimal therapeutic outcomes. The ability to identify the ratio of drugs that will produce a synergistic benefit, and a technology that makes it possible to maintain and deliver that ratio in the body, could have a profound impact on combination chemotherapy efficacy. Furthermore, better treatment regimens rely on the identification or synthesis of new active compounds. The richest source of novel compound classes for biological and pharmaceutical studies are natural products. In fact, approximately 25% of drugs in the modern pharmacopoeia are derived from plants, and many others are synthetic analogues built on prototype compounds isolated from plants. These compounds have wide structural and functional diversity, biochemical specificity, and desirable molecular properties. Natural compounds have evolved over millennia as a result of evolutionary pressure and therefore possess specific biological activity, rather than randomly assembled synthetic chemicals.

Potential DPhil projects will involve the synthesis and characterization of novel nanoparticles, and screening new natural products for improved chemotherapeutics.



This research opportunity would be suitable for a candidate with a chemistry, or materials science background, and a strong interest in learning biological techniques for applications in cancer therapy. My group is involved in interdisciplinary technologies, and based at Begbroke Science Park. We work closely with both the Chemical Engineering group, and also groups within NDWRH. Students will benefit both from training in materials science, cell culture, biological assays, and nanoparticle technology. The group benefits from close ties with materials characterization groups, and associated facilities. My group has always been very interested in applied technologies and translation from the bench towards the clinic. Support would be given in scientific writing, and career development. Students will be encouraged to publish their work, present at lab meetings, journal clubs, departmental seminars, and international conferences. The university also provides a wide-range of training opportunities.