Andy Tao was already a cancer researcher when his uncle, who lived in China, told him that he expected to recover soon from liver cancer. But when Tao talked to the doctors, he heard a starkly different story.
"I knew after talking with the doctors that he would die. Eventually, I realized how helpless we are against cancer," says Tao, a Purdue University biochemist.
That wasn't Tao's only personal brush with the disease. One of the most jarring was the cancer-related death of Henry Weiner, a former Purdue biochemist and Tao's mentor. "Those experiences have given me a direct motivation to try to make some impact on cancer research," he says.
Cancer researcher Andy Tao uses nanotechnology to discover new ways to detect cancer early and deliver drug therapies.
(Purdue Agricultural Communication photos/Tom Campbell)
Tao's father-in-law is recovering from liver cancer, the same disease that claimed his uncle. The biggest difference—and the motivation for Tao's research—is that Tao's uncle was diagnosed with late-stage cancer, while his father-in-law was diagnosed early during other medical tests.
"When most people die of cancer, it's from later-stage cancer," Tao says. "I realized we need a smarter way to fight cancer."
Tao's research detects the early biochemical processes that occur in cell proteins and lead to cancer-cell formation.
Normal cells grow, divide and eventually die, but tumor cells grow out of control. One of the hallmarks of tumor cells is phosphorylation, a process in which an enzyme called kinase attaches to and catalyzes a protein inside a cell or on a cell's surface. When overactive, kinase can cause cancer-cell formation.
To monitor what is happening during phosphorylation, cancer researchers need to extract just the affected proteins; however, cells have thousands of proteins. Grabbing one is like reaching for a needle in a haystack.
Tao's solution uses special nanopolymer compounds, dubbed PolyMAC, to fish out affected proteins with ions that bind only to them. Minute beads attached to PolyMAC bring the proteins with them when retrieved through chemical reactions.
Dr. Ron Bose, an assistant professor of oncology at the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, is a breast cancer researcher who has worked with Tao and used PolyMAC for nearly two years. PolyMAC is proving to be an effective tool for furthering his work.