Home » Fall 2008Rigor and Relevance

They May Be Small, But They Deliver

by David Salisbury No Comment

Forget the Mini Cooper.



The biggest small thing in transportation is Assistant Professor of Chemistry Eva Harth’s creation of a new drug delivery system using nanoparticles.

Teeny, tiny nanoparticles—molecules so small that about 90,000 of them total the width of a human hair—have unusual properties, structure and applications that have great promise for innovation in science and medicine. Harth’s discovery is in the area of one of their most promising applications, their potential to distribute drugs in the body and to enhance drug effectiveness.

Harth developed a specially designed particle called a nanosponge, which can carry large numbers of drug molecules. Then, collaborating with Heidi Hamm, Earl W. Sutherland Jr. Professor of Pharmacology in the School of Medicine, Harth synthesized a molecule with the ability to slip through cell membranes and reach the cell’s nucleus. Harth’s lab established how to attach this transporter to the nanosponge; the transporter then pulled the nanosponge (and its piggyback drug molecules) into cell compartments. Since inner cell compartments are difficult for most drugs to reach, the findings have possibilities for disease treatments.

Harth is already applying her drug delivery system to fighting cancer. Dennis E. Hallahan, Ingram Professor of Cancer Research and professor of cancer biology and biomedical engineering in the School of Medicine, had identified a molecule that targets a surface feature on lung carcinomas. Harth improved the molecule and attached it to her nanoparticle. The two scientists determined that the combination could deliver drugs to the surface of lung tumors. They are now working to adapt the delivery system to carry cisplatinum, a chemotherapy agent used to treat several kinds of cancer but that is highly toxic and has unpleasant side effects. By delivering the anti-cancer agent directly to the cancerous tissues, Harth’s system decreases the adverse effects and increases its potency.

“The people in my lab have tried a number of different drug delivery systems, and Eva’s works the best of those we’ve looked at,” Hallahan says.

Harth’s research is supported by a National Science Foundation grant awarded to her as part of a Faculty Early Career Development (CAREER) award, NSF’s most prestigious honor for junior faculty.

photo credit: Neil Brake

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