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Past Winner
2008 Innovation Challenge Award

Jiang Liu

Controlled Trans-Lymphatic Delivery of Chemotherapy
for the Treatment of Lymphatic Metastasis in Cancer

University of Toronto

A new drug-delivery system developed by Jiang Liu at the University of Toronto could help prevent the often-lethal spread of cancer via the body's lymphatic system. His work has earned him the second-place prize in NSERC's 2008 Innovation Challenge.

Most types of cancer do their worst damage once the cancer has metastasized, or spread from its original site. That spread often occurs through the lymphatic system, which works closely with the body's organs to perform functions such as transporting nutrients and removing waste from the body. Unfortunately, it also provides an ideal pathway for stray cancer cells to move around, some of which are caught by the lymph nodes, where they can grow. If the lymphatic metastasis is not well controlled, tumours can recur and the cancer spread even further.

Current cancer treatments often involve injecting drugs into the blood stream, a procedure that leads to indiscriminate drug distribution throughout the body and severe side effects. The difficulty of bridging the gap between the blood system and the lymphatic system also makes this approach less effective for treating cancer cells harbouring in the lymphatic system.

Dr. Liu has developed a system that successfully targets lymph nodes in delivering chemotherapy drugs. Dubbed the Microparticulate Lymphatic Targeting System (MLTS), his innovation uses bioabsorbable particles that contain anti-cancer drugs and are specially designed to be taken by the lymphatic system. The particles are embedded in a special gelfoam that is meant to be implanted near lymph nodes, normally as part of regular cancer surgery. As the gelfoam dissolves, the particles are released and are then transported to the lymph nodes, where they release their drug payload. In laboratory tests, he has been able to increase the drug exposure in the desired areas to 400 times what can be achieved by regular injections, with fewer side effects. By transposing those results into a human cancer model, the system he has developed could reduce metastasis in lymph nodes by 80 percent.

More testing and refinement is under way in preparation to test MLTS on humans, but Dr. Liu is very optimistic about its therapeutic potential. Having proved this concept in several cancer animal models, he currently focuses on lung cancer, one of several types whose effects become far more deadly once it spreads to the lymphatic system. But by varying the design of the therapeutic particle and the gelfoam, his system can be applied to other types of cancer and in other areas of the body.