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NEW: URI Pharmacy Professor Awarded $1.3M Grant to Fight Cancer

Monday, January 27, 2014


Wei Lu, assistant professor of biomedical and pharmaceutical sciences in URI’s College of Pharmacy. URI Photo by Joe Giblin.

The National Institutes of Health have awarded Wei Lu, a University of Rhode Island pharmacy professor, a $1.3 million grant to further study a new class of inorganic nanoparticles that target primary cancer, and help control the disease’s spread (metastases) and recurrence.

Lu, an assistant professor of biomedical and pharmaceutical sciences in the College of Pharmacy, has discovered in his preliminary research that hollow copper sulfide nanoparticles are effective in delivering chemotherapy and heat through a laser that can burn the tumor.

Where will the funding go?

The Kingston resident will be using the four-year NIH grant to further his laboratory study with a focus on breast cancer, the second most frequently diagnosed malignancy in women worldwide.

“We are developing a novel cancer therapeutic technology that has several innovative features: biodegradability, multimodality and simplicity,” said Lu, who is teaming with Pharmacy Professor Bingfang Yan, a specialist in genetic and environmental factors that combine to regulate the expression of genes involved in drug response and the cellular switches related to tumor formation.

“One nanoparticle can carry hundreds or even thousands of drug molecules to a target like a tumor cell,” Lu said.

Nanoparticles are submicroscopic particles whose size is measured in nanometers. A nanometer is 1 billionth of a meter. Nanoparticles are only 1/1,000 the width of a single human hair.

A bold new treatment

Lu wants to enhance photothermal ablation therapy, a process that uses lasers in cancer treatment. Initially, high levels of laser treatments were needed to burn and subsequently kill the tumor. About 10 years ago, inorganic nanoparticles were introduced to this process in animal tests, which provided better absorption of the laser light, generated greater heat, and in turn lowered the laser doses.

But there are several problems with current nanoparticle-aided photothermal ablation therapy. For example, the current delivery technology does not allow the nanoparticles to be distributed evenly in a tumor, thus the heat generated by the particles is not evenly distributed. As a result, malignancy can continue in the site receiving sub-lethal doses of heat.

In addition, some types of nanoparticles, such as gold particles, are difficult for the body to eliminate.

“As is the case with surgical removal of a tumor, getting all of the cancer is critical, ” Lu said. “The new nanoparticles provide a three-way punch to the tumor: a more widespread ability in a tumor to distribute heat and burn the tumor, a more efficient and comprehensive way to deliver chemotherapy, and better use of heat to activate the chemotherapeutic agents and immunotherapeutic agents. The new nanotechnology offers promise in tumor eradication.

“Such nanoparticles are introduced intravenously and are absorbed into a tumor.” Lu said. “This study is using near-infrared laser light instead of ultraviolet light or visible light because it penetrates tumor tissue better and has much lower side effects. In addition, these particles are readily degradable in the body, minimizing potential organ toxicity.”

Past funding

Lu, who came to the University in 2010, said he could not have competed for the NIH award if it weren’t for the support of the Idea Network of Biomedical Research Excellence, a $45 million initiative funded by NIH and headed by URI to increase research capacity among biomedical faculty in Rhode Island.

“The program supported my research for three years, which allowed me to develop my preliminary findings,” Lu said. “I am very grateful for this support, without which I could not have gotten this major federal funding.”

Lu’s research colleague Yan, chair of the Department of Biomedical and Pharmaceutical Sciences, said it’s rare in the nation for a junior faculty member with just three years on the job to be awarded such a major grant through the regular R01 mechanism by NIH. Yan said the two bring different things to this project. “Professor Lu works on the therapy and I am the toxicologist, focusing on how the nanoparticles are eliminated from the body.”

Lu and Yan will be working with post-doctoral fellows, graduate students and undergraduates from the bachelor of science in pharmaceutical sciences program.


Related Slideshow: New England’s Healthiest States 2013

The United Health Foundation recently released its 2013 annual reoprt: America's Health Rankings, which provides a comparative state by state analysis of several health measures to provide a comprehensive perspective of our nation's health issues. See how the New England states rank in the slides below.



All Outcomes Rank: Outcomes represent what has already occurred, either through death, disease or missed days due to illness. In America's Health Rankings, outcomes include prevalence of diabetes, number of poor mental or physical health days in last 30 days, health disparity, infant mortality rate, cardiovascular death rate, cancer death rate and premature death. Outcomes account for 25% of the final ranking.

Determinants Rank: Determinants represent those actions that can affect the future health of the population. For clarity, determinants are divided into four groups: Behaviors, Community and Environment, Public and Health Policies, and Clinical Care. These four groups of measures influence the health outcomes of the population in a state, and improving these inputs will improve outcomes over time. Most measures are actually a combination of activities in all four groups. 

Diabetes Rank: Based on percent of adults who responded yes to the question "Have you ever been told by a doctor that you have diabetes?" Does not include pre-diabetes or diabetes during pregnancy.

Smoking Rank: Based on percentage of adults who are current smokers (self-report smoking at least 100 cigarettes in their lifetime and currently smoke).

Obesity Rank: Based on percentage of adults who are obese, with a body mass index (BMI) of 30.0 or higher.

Source: http://www.americashealthrankings.org/

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6. Rhode Island

Overall Rank: 19

Outcomes Rank: 30

Determinants Rank: 13

Diabetes Rank: 26

Smoking Rank: 14

Obesity Rank: 13



1. Low prevalence of obesity

2. High immunization coverage among adolescents

3. Ready availability of primary care physicians  


1.High rate of drug deaths

2. High rate of preventable hospitalizations

3. Large disparity in heath status by educational attainment

Source: http://www.americashealthrankings.org/RI

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5. Maine

Overall Rank: 16

Outcomes Rank: 25

Determinants Rank: 12

Diabetes Rank: 23

Smoking Rank: 29

Obesity Rank: 28



1. Low violent crime rate

2. Low percentage of uninsured population

3. Low prevalence of low birthweight  


1. High prevalence of binge drinking

2.High rate of cancer deaths

3. Limited availability of dentists

Source: http://www.americashealthrankings.org/ME

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4. Connecticut

Overall Rank: 7

Outcomes Rank: 15

Determinants Rank: 4

Diabetes Rank: 16

Smoking Rank: 4

Obesity Rank: 12



1. Low prevalence of smoking

2. Low incidence of infectious diseases

3. High immunization coverage among children & adolescents  


1. Moderate prevalence of binge drinking

2. Low high school graduation rate

3. Large disparity in health status by educational attainment

Source: http://www.americashealthrankings.org/CT

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3. New Hampshire

Overall Rank: 5

Outcomes Rank: 7

Determinants Rank: 5

Diabetes Rank: 16

Smoking Rank: 11

Obesity Rank: 22



1. Low percentage of children in poverty

2. High immunization coverage among children

3. Low infant mortality rate  


1. High prevalence of binge drinking

2.High incidence of pertussis infections

3. Low per capita public health funding

Source: http://www.americashealthrankings.org/NH

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2. Massachusetts

Overall Rank: 4

Outcomes Rank: 14

Determinants Rank: 3

Diabetes Rank: 10

Smoking Rank: 7

Obesity Rank: 2



1. Low prevalence of obesity

2. Low percentage of uninsured population

3. Ready availability of primary care physicians & dentists  


1. High prevalence of binge drinking

2. High rate of preventable hospitalizations

3. Large disparity in health status by educational attainment

Source: http://www.americashealthrankings.org/MA

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1. Vermont

Overall Rank: 2

Outcomes Rank: 12

Determinants Rank: 1

Diabetes Rank: 4

Smoking Rank: 9

Obesity Rank: 5



1. High rate of high school graduation

2. Low violent crime rate

3. Low percentage of uninsured population  


1. High prevalence of binge drinking

2. Low immunization coverage among children

3. High incidence of pertussis infections

Source: http://www.americashealthrankings.org/VT


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