UAMS Researcher Receives $2.3 Million in Nanomedicine Grants to Treat and Prevent Lethal Cancer Metastasis

By Nate Hinkel

The three new grants recently awarded to Vladimir Zharov, Ph.D., director of the Phillips Classic Laser and Nanomedicine Laboratories at UAMS, are in addition to a $1.5 million National Cancer Institute grant he received in May.

“Nanomedicine holds the promise to solve many challenging problems of fundamental biology and clinical medicine,” Zharov said. “We are lucky to have received these grants and they will go a long way in helping to establish some very promising research and trials that puts UAMS among the leaders in the world in this new technology.”

Zharov said nanomedicine may eventually lead to breakthroughs in the early diagnosis and effective treatment of cancers, stroke, heart attack and infections, which remain the leading causes of death in the world.
The first grant from the National Institute of Biomedical Imaging and Bioengineering is $1.2 million over four years and will support comprehensive preclinical studies and a first-of-its-kind clinical trial using nanoparticles at the UAMS Winthrop P. Rockefeller Cancer Institute. It will help the Institute’s world-renowned cancer experts explore a way to diagnose deadly breast cancer metastasis in its earliest stages.

About 90 percent of all cancer deaths result from metastasis, which is when cancer cells shed from the primary tumor and develop secondary tumors within the body’s distant organs. The development of methods for finding, counting and killing these potentially deadly metastatic cells in both the blood and lymphatic systems should be considered one of the top priorities in cancer research, Zharov said. The long-term goal of these methods is to improve the survival rate in cancer patients.

Zharov and his team have developed hybrid multicolor gold and magnetic nanoparticles with a special biological coating that can target metastatic cells within the body once they have spread through the blood and lymph system. A laser is used to heat up those nanoparticles attached to metastatic cells without harmful effect on the body’s healthy cells. Rapid expansion of nanoparticles in metastatic cells causes ultrasound waves, which travel through the tissue and are captured by a small ultrasound transducer held near the skin. In a preliminary study the technique was so sensitive that it was able to detect and count rare metastatic cells before they form distant metastases.

“Early detection of tumor cells in the blood system could prevent or decrease the development of metastases by using the laser to kill metastatic cells directly in the bloodstream,” Zharov said. “Currently there is no therapy to prevent the deadly metastasis disease.”

Laura Hutchins, M.D., a professor and director of the Division of Hematology/Oncology in the UAMS College of Medicine will be participating in the trial.

The second grant, a nearly $400,000 offering over two years from the National Cancer Institute, will focus on the role of stem cells in cancer development. Ekaterina Galanzha, Ph.D., an assistant professor collaborating with Zharov, said the challenges of current cancer treatment may be explained by a small subset of therapy-resistant and highly aggressive metastatic cancer cells called cancer stem cells. UAMS researchers hope to develop a method using nanoparticles for molecular identification of circulating cancer stem cells. If successful, Zharov hopes to create a new therapy for the targeted eradication of those cancer stem cells.

The third grant awarded to Zharov is for $700,000 over four years from the National Science Foundation to develop high resolution laser nano-imaging of tiny structures in live single cells that can be used for both basic and clinical studies with a focus on the early diagnosis of abnormal processes responsible for cancer and aging.

Collaborating with Zharov in the final two grants are Robert Reis, Ph.D., professor in the UAMS Departments of Geriatrics; Thomas Kelly, Ph.D., associate professor in the UAMS Department of Pathology; and Evgeny Shashkov, Ph.D., a visiting scholar. 

Nanomedicine research and advances are gaining steam worldwide with a recent Global Industry Analysts report revealing that the nanotechnology market will surpass $160 billion in the next six years.

“Zharov’s team is propelling UAMS and Arkansas to the front of elite worldwide institutions that are doing groundbreaking work in nanomedicine,” said Michael Douglas, Ph.D., director of UAMS BioVentures. “Nanomedicine is already a growing industry with more than 200 companies investing several million dollars annually. We are extremely proud and lucky to have this work being done right here at UAMS.”

Zharov’s work has recently been featured in several respected publications, including Nature magazine in July, which referred to him as an international leader in Nanomedicine and highlighted his work in early cancer diagnosis and treatment. In August, a joint achievement between Zharov’s team and the University of Arkansas featuring the development of golden carbon nanotubes for the detection and purging of cancer metastasis in critical sentinel lymph nodes was published in Nature Nanotechnology magazine.

Zharov said UAMS has sought out expert researchers who have allowed UAMS to be on the front edge of nanomedicine advances, such as the engineering of new nanomaterials that are helping bring fast-growing discoveries into practical clinical use. Zharov’s team and UAMS biologists and physicians promote collaborations across the University of Arkansas System to further develop new nanomedicine approaches for use in UAMS clinics for earlier detection and treatment of cancer and other deadly diseases.

“Through advances in our collaborative work, we are able to look deeper inside cells than ever before using nanotechnology,” Zharov said. “This is just the beginning, and sooner or later we will be able to develop another technology, which can be called picotechnology, to study structures even smaller than a nanometer. This holds great promise, especially in the medical arena, and with continued support Arkansas can attract the technical and medical students, physicists, engineers, biologists, business professionals and other experts necessary to remain on the cutting edge.”

UAMS is the state’s only comprehensive academic health center, with five colleges, a graduate school, a new 540,000-square-foot hospital, six centers of excellence and a statewide network of regional centers. UAMS has 2,652 students and 733 medical residents. Its centers of excellence include the Winthrop P. Rockefeller Cancer Institute, the Jackson T. Stephens Spine & Neurosciences Institute, the Myeloma Institute for Research and Therapy, the Harvey & Bernice Jones Eye Institute, the Psychiatric Research Institute and the Donald W. Reynolds Institute on Aging. It is the state’s largest public employer with more than 10,000 employees, including nearly 1,150 physicians who provide medical care to patients at UAMS, Arkansas Children’s Hospital, the VA Medical Center and UAMS’ Area Health Education Centers throughout the state. Visit or