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Joy Wolfram believes that instead of safe research proposals, crazy ideas are needed when trying to save lives.

Your research team at the Mayo Clinic works with  nanomedicine in the treatment of cancer and has come up with a new approach. Why was a new apporoach needed?

Nanoparticles deliver medication to tumor and diseased tissues.

The liver is the enemy of nanomedicine. Anything nanosized that you inject into the blood, will go to the liver because it’s the body’s filtration system. If all the nanoparticles that we inject get stuck in the liver, it means that very few will reach the tumor.

To solve this problem, we found that we can change the shape of the nanoparticle to a space ship shape, like a disc.

Joy Wolfram

What other findings has your lab done?

Another finding that my lab has done is that chloroquine, which is actually antimalarial drug, could lock the liver temporarily from taking in the nanoparticles. If we trick the liver with the malarial drug, and then inject the nanoparticles, we get more of it in the tumor and less in the liver.

You only started your lab last year and have already made these findings – seems kind of crazy?

The research for many of these findings was initiated prior to the start of my own lab. The reality is that over 90 percent of what we do in science fails. And this is not even on patient level, this is in the lab. On average it takes 15 years and 2,6 billion dollars to get a therapeutic agent to patient use. So it’s a huge investment. Most scientists work on something for their whole lives and still fail, because most of the stuff, even the stuff that works well in animals, ends up not working in humans.

Okay, so your lab has obviously been highly successful. What is the next step you intend to take?

In the US to get something clinically approved, you have to submit an investigational new drug application (IND) to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). This year, my goal is to submit an application for injecting biological nanoparticles into the scalp to treat hair loss.

The nanoparticles that are injected under the scalp are isolated from subcutaneous fat. The regulatory process is a lot faster for using nanoparticles that have been taken under the skin and then used to other subcutaneous parts of the body, than using nanoparticles in intravenous injections.

Hair loss is not something that people are dying for. But once we’ve shown that the nanoparticles work for hair loss, we’re more likely to get an approval to use them for our actual purpose which is intravenous injections for let’s say cancer treatment.

In Finland there has recently been a lot of discussion about cancer research funding, and public funding has decreased during the last decade. What are the trends in research funding internationally?

I think there is definitely a similar trend in the US. I can’t speak of Asia – I think Asia has a lot of funding. Scientists in the US are looking for non-governmental sources of funding and partnerships with companies. I think that the main difference between Europe and the US is that in the US philanthropy is more common. One family can give 99 million dollars to cancer research.

When there’s little funding and the competition is high, you run into a problem where everyone submits safe research proposals. When we really want to save patients we need to have crazy ideas.