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Pulsed power research takes aim at brain cancer

A woman and two men in a group photo.

From left are Angela Spurgeon, Paul Pevsner, M.D., and Tom Marrero, a professor of chemical engineering, at the Research Society of America’s annual Sigma Xi lecture in Lafferre Hall in Fall 2013. Pevsner, an adjunct professor in the Electrical and Computer Engineering Department was the featured speaker at the event, which Marrero organized.

Because of their biocompatibility and unique physical and optical properties — including the potential to make them radioactive — gold nanoparticles’ potential for novel diagnostic and therapeutic medical applications has created a research “gold rush.” Combined with pulsed power, the atomic-sized “nuggets” are half of a one-two punch in the brain cancer research of Paul Pevsner, M.D., and Angela Spurgeon, D.O., in MU’s College of Engineering.

Pevsner, a neurosurgeon-turned-researcher, is an adjunct associate professor in the Electrical and Computer Engineering Department (ECE). Spurgeon is a fifth-year neurosurgical resident at MU working in Pevsner’s lab.

The physician-researchers are experimenting with electroporation, a process that uses electromagnetic pulses to open pores in cells of the blood-brain barrier. It holds promise for both detection and destruction of cancer cells.

“The blood-brain barrier,” said Spurgeon, “is very selective in what it lets into the brain. Our goal is to use electroporation to our advantage by opening the blood-brain barrier and allowing the immunolabeled radioactive nanoparticles to target brain tumor cells.

“A patient with a brain tumor would undergo a brain biopsy,” Spurgeon explained. “We would be able to identify the proteins specific to the tumor using mass spectrometry. Antibodies to these proteins would be prepared and attached to the nanoparticles, and these radioactive, immunolabeled, targeted nanoparticles would intravenously seek and kill the tumor.”

Pevsner, last fall’s featured lecturer for the Research Society of America’s annual Sigma Xi lecture at MU, told his audience that, for many years, it has been known electric pulses would open the double wall of the cell to admit proteins. But the idea to use label specific radioactive nanoparticles with electroporation had never been tested.

A slide of the nanopartciles inside the brain cell.

Shown here is an antibody-labeled nanoparticle that has crossed the blood brain barrier and can be seen in the murine brain on electron microscopy. Adjunct Associate Professor Paul Pesner, a physician with an adjunct appointment in electrical and computer engineering, and his research assistant Angela Spurgeon are investigating the use of electroporation to introduce gold coated nanoparticles into the brain to treat brain cancer.

“There are a lot of moving parts, which makes it interesting,” he said. “We had no idea if the targeting would work, but we were pleasantly surprised. Now we have to explore the use of EMP with the targeted nanoparticles to actually kill tumors.”

The research team’s early success using mice to test the concept indicates that it holds great promise. They are collaborating with MU Chemistry Professor and Associate Director of the MU Research Reactor David Robertson’s lab to produce the gold-coated nanoparticles. ECE Professor Scott Kovaleski’s lab is working to produce a device to administer the pulsed electromagnetic waves to mice.

“Malignant brain tumors are among the most serious cancers,” Pevsner said. Gliomas grow incredibly fast. People generally die within 13 months of diagnosis with current treatment.”

“It’s a step-by-step process,” Pevsner said of the ongoing investigation to find a therapy that might eventually improve that statistic.

Spurgeon, who hails from Owensville, Mo., said she wanted to go to medical school her entire life. She was captivated by neurosurgery after discovering it during her third-year rotation. “I love the variety of being a surgeon,” she said.

“You always know that academic research is a possibility, but it wasn’t until this year that I actually experienced it,” she added. “At times, medicine can be monotonous, but research offers a change of pace. The whole process of taking a treatment concept, testing it in the lab and then applying it to actual patients is very exciting.”

It may be just as well that the research experience hasn’t convinced Spurgeon to abandon her dream of being a surgeon.

Describing her surgical skills, Pevsner said, “She’s got the best hands I’ve ever seen.”