Twin track cancer attack (Day 42)

PillsCurrent statistics tell us that around three identical twins are born for every 1,000 deliveries worldwide. Overall, quite low odds.

However, in the UK at least, for every 1,000 children born today, over a third will be diagnosed with cancer at some point in their lifetimes. It’s a worrying statistic and an area where chemical engineering has a role to play.

My statistical interest in twins and cancer incidence rates was prompted by a great chemical engineering story from the University of New South Wales, Australia.

Twin fourth year chemical engineering students Alex and Douglas Dunn have used a prestigious international fellowship to make cancer-carrying nanoparticles more patient-friendly.

Douglas and Alex Dunn

Twin brothers Douglas (left) and Alex Dunn are making nanoparticles for carrying cancer drugs more patient-friendly.

They are the recipients of a Winston Churchill Memorial Trust Fellowship, which they’ve used to to build on a proof-of-concept developed by the twins and their supervisors, Dr May Lim and Associate Professor Cyrille Boyer, from UNSW’s School of Chemical Engineering

Their work has involved synthesising a magnetic nanoparticle that is coated in a polymer. Cancer-fighting drugs are attached to the polymer by a temperature and pH-sensitive bond.

A key breakthrough is the mechanism used to release cancer-fighting drugs directly into the cancer cells, which helps to reduce the drugs’ toxic side effects.

The drug payload is only released when the nanoparticle enters the acid environment of a cancer cell and when its polymer coating is simultaneously heated by an alternating magnetic field applied from outside the body .

Switching the magnetic field on or off allows controlled release of the drug either rapidly or in periodic bursts.

Alex and Douglas chose to perform their research at the Royal Institution (RI) in the UK, which is the home to an alternating magnetic field generator— a custom piece of test equipment the brothers used to analyse the effectiveness of the various nanoparticles.

Whilst at the RI, they investigated the impact of modifications to the size, shape and polymer coating of the nanoparticles, all of which could improve the chances of success when the concept is eventually tested in living organisms.

“There are a lot of variables to consider when you’re putting something into the body,” Alex explained.

“Things like minimising the number of particles and magnetic exposure needed to activate the drug release can make the system more sturdy, reliable and patient-friendly.”

“The Royal Institution has facilities, knowledge and expertise that is not readily available in Australia,” Alex says. “The Churchill Memorial Trust wants people to be able to come and take advantage of these sorts of opportunities.”

The twins say they relished the chance to work in one of the world’s oldest scientific research institutes, cultivate new contacts and research relationships, and see cutting-edge players in their field in action.

“I like to think of it as trying to learn a new language,” Alex says. “It’s one thing to try and learn it from reading a book but another to immerse yourself in the chosen country. I learned a lot exponentially while I was over there.”

Congratulations to all the team at UNSW.