Professor, Department of Chemistry, University of Victoria
Research Area: Lanthanide-based nanoparticles, biomarkers, bioimaging, and metallic and semi-conductor nanoparticles
“I like to start at the end,” says Dr. Frank van Veggel, when asked about his approach to research.
A chemical engineer by training, and currently a professor of chemistry at the University of Victoria, Dr. van Veggel begins his research projects by asking people what they need to make their jobs easier and more effective. With an end goal in sight, van Veggel works to come up with creative solutions, seeing little difference between the theoretical and applied worlds of science.
“It always leads back to the basics, to fundamental chemistry,” says van Veggel.
Van Veggel’s expertise lies in the synthesis, characterization, and application of nanoparticles, which are, simply put, extremely small particles. By definition, they are between 1 and 100 nm in size, meaning that the largest nanoparticle is more than 10 thousand times smaller than the head of a pin.
Lanthanide-based nanoparticles (LBNs), also known as the rare earth elements, are of particular interest to van Veggel. This is because their unique optical and magnetic properties lend them the capacity to act as both biolabels and contrast agents in medical imaging procedures.
Van Veggel is investigating the viability of using LBNs to address current challenges in the clinical field of cancer. He is currently focusing on prostate, breast, and brain cancer with the intention of improving both diagnostics and treatment.
Cancer diagnostics. While a mammography is the primary tool used in breast cancer detection, the x-ray images produced offer only a limited amount of information about soft tissue pathologies.
“The only thing they can see is an abnormality in the tissue. So the number of false positives and false negatives is really large in mammography,” says van Veggel.
Van Veggel aims to provide physicians with more accurate and detailed information about tumor shape, size, and location by developing more potent, injectable LBN agents that will provide better contrast while simultaneously introducing less foreign material into the body. Indeed, van Veggel has already established one patent for an MRI contrast agent, although clinical studies are still some years away.
Van Veggel is also looking into using nanoparticles in combination with biomarkers, in the hopes of creating images capable of differentiating between benign and malignant tumors, ultimately eliminating the need for invasive biopsies.
The pathological features inherent in brain cancer also present physicians with a unique set of challenges that van Veggel is hoping to address.
“The problem with brain cancer is that it is very infiltrating. It is not a nice, round tumor. It has fingers that extend into the healthy tissue and it metastasizes really easily. This is a nightmare for the surgeon,” says van Veggel.
Complicating matters further is the fact that a multitude of loose cells is released into the body with each cut a surgeon makes, and each one of these cells has the potential to travel to a different site and become a new tumor.
“It would be nice to have single-cell detection, as a cell-on-the-move is potentially another metastasis,” says van Veggel. When asked if this seems like a goal he’ll be able to accomplish, van Veggel responds with a confident smile, “Well, who knows, but if you do not think about it, then it is certainly not going to happen.”
Cancer treatment. In addition to creating better diagnostic techniques, van Veggel is working on a way to deliver cancer radiation treatment locally. This would reduce the amount of collateral damage to healthy tissue that occurs during standard treatment methods that involve a less discerning, external beam of radiation.
Van Veggel is experimenting with different injectable, radioactive LBNs, in combination with tumor-specific antibodies, as a potential avenue for a more targeted form of radiation therapy.
“I see the antibodies as a vehicle to deliver the radioactive cargo to the cancer,” says van Veggel.
While the job of the antibody is to find and latch on to the cancer cells, the job of the LBN is to administer the right dose of radiation to kill off the cancer cells in a single round. This is an added bonus as cancer cells often become radio-immune with each successive round of treatment.
For Van Veggel, who would like to make a major contribution to the field within the next 10 to 20 years, the biggest challenge to making things happen isn’t science. What slows him down the most is getting the approval and funding for his unique proposals. So when will he turn his efforts elsewhere?
“When I run out of good ideas,” says van Veggel. Looking at the size of a folder on his desk top, literally labeled ‘Good Ideas’, I’d say that will not be for a long while yet.