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Raghuraman Kannan has combined his background in chemistry, joint appointments in bioengineering and radiology, entrepreneurial roots, collaborative spirit and tireless energy into promising research for the diagnosis and treatment of cancer.

The Raghuraman Kannan research group.

The Raghuraman Kannan research group includes, from left, Dhananjay Suresh, Chuck Caldwell, Kannan, Shreya Ghoshdashtidar and Sandhya Saranathan. All are from the MU Bioengineering Department. Photo by Katie Bell

Raghuraman Kannan was very close to his to his cousin Jegan, a chemist who ran his own lab in India. When the younger man started college, he asked Jegan what he should study, and his cousin told him that if he studied chemistry, he could come to work for him.

“He passed away in my second year of college,” said Kannan, an associate professor of bioengineering who also has a joint appointment in radiology. “His death was a defining moment. He loved chemistry, and so I wanted to push it.”

Kannan went on to earn a master’s degree in chemistry from the Indian Institute of Technology at Madras and his doctorate in chemistry from the Indian Institute of Science.

“Chemistry is challenging and rewarding,” he said. “You can make the molecule that you dream of. My education in chemistry has been an excellent seed for my whole life.”

Another important influence in Kannan’s early life was his family’s inclination to entrepreneurial endeavors. In addition to his cousin’s lab, family businesses included a pharmacy that is still in operation. Kannan himself is a co-founder of four start-ups that are targeting the commercialization of some of his biomedical discoveries utilizing nanoparticles for cancer detection and treatment.

Ajit Zambre, Srikar Raman and Raghu Kannan working in the lab.

Dr. Ajit Zambre, Dr. Srikar Raman and Associate Professor Raghu Kannan of bioengineering and radiology consult in Kannan’s lab. The group has designed a molecular “on-off” switch. The optical switch emits fluorescence light upon interaction with biomolecule for easy detection of molecule of interest. Photo by Katie Bell

The bioengineer has 17 research projects underway in his lab; fully 12 are funded but, he said, not everything is big. His research group is large with three postdocs — a pharmacologist, an engineer and a microbiologist — and six doctoral students: four bioengineers, one civil engineer and a chemist and three undergraduate students.

“With my group, we can have a lot of variation in the lab. They are very different and think in different ways,” Kannan said. “We have a friendly atmosphere; they are like an extended family.”

Kannan’s seminal work has included the use of cluster chemistry — the combination of metal atoms — with a focus on using metal nanoparticle clusters to diagnose and treat cancer.

“When more than two metals atoms are attached, they are very powerful. With more, they become extraordinarily powerful, and nanoparticles contain thousands of atoms,” Kannan said. “Our challenge is putting them into the body. My program is mainly focused on developing these nanoparticles.”

Gold, Kannan said, is relatively inert. Because of its non-reactivity, it has been used for molecular imaging.

“We started work in 2004 or 2005 using different shapes and sizes of nanoparticles. We made rods and cages — or cubes. In the 800-nanometer window, the cages absorb the light, but the blood doesn’t,” Kannan said of the discovery that allows them to track nanoparticles in the body. “We thought, ‘Now the light is absorbed, what else can we do?’”

Kannan’s research group then discovered that using a laser light, they could melt the nano-cage. It followed that if a chemotherapy drug is placed in the cage and that cage is located at the site of a cancer tumor, they would be able to deliver a direct drug hit to the tumor: a Trojan Horse treatment. This type of therapy has obvious advantages over the current practice of treating the entire body with chemotherapy, sapping patients’ energy and creating a variety of unpleasant side effects.

“Now the question is how to take the drug straight to the tumor,” said Kannan, who believes the answer is through the use of the femtosecond laser fiber optics.

“It’s evolving,” he said. “It’s not in clinics yet.”

Another investigations in Kannan’s lab is detection of molecular markers in cancer using gold nanorods for developing “personalized medicine.”

“[As it develops], non-small cell lung cancer [about 70 percent of all lung cancers] create very different cells. It knows how to survive by changing its genetic composition,” Kannan said of one of the major problems in treating patients with this type of lung cancer and some other cancers.

“I thought, ‘How about using gold nanorods to represent the biomarkers in the tumor tissue?’” Kannan said. “We can attach the biomolecule to the nanorod, and it will attach to the tissue.”

And because the nanorods can be “lighted,” in microscope; pathologists could determine exactly the number of biomarkers of interest within patients tumor tissue. Quantification of these markers would enable oncologist to devise a patient-specific treatment plan.

“With tissue diagnostics, I’m just working on one cancer at a time, but eventually it will work will be for all cancers,” he said.

Kannan poses with Dr. Amolak Singh of the Department of Radiology, and Dr. Gerald Arthur of the Department of Pathology and Anatomical Sciences

Kannan poses with Dr. Amolak Singh of the Department of Radiology, and Dr. Gerald Arthur of the Department of Pathology and Anatomical Sciences on research projects that have been funded by MU’s Coulter Translational Partnership program. Photo by Katie Bell

Kannan and collaborators from the MU School of Medicine have received “bridge” funding from the campus’ Coulter Translational Partnership Program to speed commercialization of targeted biomedical discoveries. The funded research projects represent solutions to actual clinical needs.

He has partnered with Dr. Gerald Arthur of the Department of Pathology and Anatomical Sciences to investigate and advance the technology behind “A novel nanoplatform for accurate detection of biomarkers in tumor tissues.”

“It was the right place and the right time, and I have the appropriate background,” said Arthur about the collaboration. “Not in my wildest dreams did I think I would be part of a [Coulter] grant.”

Arthur said he had been toying with the idea of retirement but the opportunity to work with Kannan on the cancer detection project has energized him. “I have learned a lot,” he said. “I never thought I’d be happy to come to work instead of traveling and sailing.”

Kannan also is working with Dr. Amolak Singh of the Department of Radiology to develop and move “RTN-Scan: A novel molecular probe for early detection of recurrent and metastatic breast cancer” forward.

Singh said he is happy to partner with Kannan because the two of them work in the same department, have the same interests and also have worked together on unique and successful projects.

“The materials he has produced can, with high specificity, pick up the smallest lesions,” said Singh.

Kannan said he is looking for that one project that will allow him to make a difference in the next several years. His end goal is to see the work he is doing being used by doctors to treat their patients.

“Money is not what is going to give me happiness,” he said. “Seeing my products getting into clinics will give me a lot of satisfaction; that will be truly satisfying.”