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Doctoral student seeks way to beat tumors faster than chemotherapy

Tuesday, Feb. 21, 2017

Tuyen Nguyen

Tuyen Nguyen, doctoral student in chemistry, works with anticancer nanoparticles at Kansas State University. | Download this photo.


MANHATTAN — Move over, chemotherapy. A Kansas State University student hopes a new method she is developing — which uses what she has dubbed "tiny superheroes" — may treat bone cancer faster than chemotherapy. It also could partner with MRI scanning to diagnose cancer more effectively.

Tuyen Nguyen, doctoral student in chemistry from Vietnam, said these "tiny superheroes" are nanoparticles, which are a million times smaller than a tennis ball, that she has synthesized to sniff out villainous cancer and attack bone tumors head-on. Additionally, the nanoparticles light up cancer in MRIs to streamline diagnosis.

"It's exciting that this research could someday help chemotherapy patients in the fight against cancer," said Nguyen, whose research is conducted in and supported by the Nanotechnology Innovation Center of Kansas State, or NICKS.

Nguyen recently presented her research at Kansas State University's Three Minute Thesis Competition, earning first place and the People's Choice award. She also has published the research in Scientific Reports, which is a sister journal of Nature.

Under the guidance of Santosh Aryal, assistant professor of chemistry and core faculty member of NICKS, Nguyen synthesized a particle whose stealth covering, which is made up of alendronic acid, is attracted to the excess calcium present in bone tumors. Upon arriving at the site of the tumor, the particles bind strongly with the bone and conquer the cancerous cells.

Polyethylene glycol, or PEG, is usually used as a stealth covering in nanoparticles to enhance their stability in the body, Aryal said. PEG is a polymer that is used extensively in medicine and in many consumer products, including foods and cosmetics.

"Because of the unlimited use of PEG-related products, our immune system has started to recognize it as an invader, which limits the drug availability," Aryal said.

Instead of using PEG, the tiny superhero receives its biological stability from alendronic acid, which not only provides stability but also serves as a pathfinder to reach bone cancer and is equipped with infused contrast agents to streamline diagnosis via MRI.

"I am thrilled with the results so far, and I look forward to seeing this research lead to the development of new cancer treatments in the future," Aryal said.

In a typical bone model experiment, 80 percent of the nanoparticles bound to the bone within 15 minutes. In a cellular study, after 24 hours chemotherapy-loaded nanoparticles exhibited two times higher efficiency than chemotherapy alone, Nguyen said. Also, the nanoparticle method could potentially minimize side effects by controlling the drug release rate and specifically addressing cancerous cells while leaving healthy cells free to grow.

The nanoparticles' stealth covering infused with its magnetic contrast agent would assist with MRI because it binds to the cancer, causing it to resonate clearer in the image. This ability of the nanoparticles makes them not only a potential treatment but also possibly a diagnostic tool, Nguyen said.

In addition to its cancer-killing and MRI-helping properties, Nguyen said her nanoparticles are very stable and do not break apart in the bloodstream. This nanoparticle method is currently undergoing further testing.

After completing her doctoral degree, Nguyen wants to become a professor so she can continue teaching undergraduate students and researching nanomedicine.

"I am not only learning organic chemistry but also biology for cellular studies and physics for understanding the principles of MRI," Nguyen said. "Because this project is interdisciplinary, I believe it is preparing me to succeed as I continue in my academic career."

Nguyen was awarded first place for her presentation of her previous findings for this project at Kansas State University's Graduate Research, Arts and Discovery Forum in 2016. She has received funding for the project through the chemistry department's Graduate Teaching Assistantship and the Johnson Cancer Research Center's Graduate Research Award as well as the Nanotechnology Innovation Center of Kansas State.


Santosh Aryal


Tuyen Nguyen is Tween Nwin; Santosh Aryal is San-tosh Ar-ree-yall.


Chemistry department

Nanotechnology Innovation Center of Kansas State

Written by

Tiffany Roney

At a glance

Tuyen Nguyen, doctoral student in chemistry, is designing a method that could potentially treat bone cancer faster than chemotherapy and also streamline diagnosis via MRI.