Mines News

Release Date Tuesday, August 9, 2022

Mines Researchers Receive National Cancer Institute Funding for Innovation that Reverses Breast Cancer

Dr. Congzhou Wang (left) stands in a research lab with his students including biomedical engineering undergraduates Annaliese Braucht and Katherine Ballard along with nanoscience and nanoengineering graduate students Jinyuan Liu and Zhengqiang Li.


Congzhou Wang, Ph.D., assistant professor of nanoscience and biomedical engineering at South Dakota Mines, and Steve Smith, Ph.D., professor and head of the Department of Nanoscience & Biomedical Engineering, have received a research grant from the National Cancer Institute (NCI) under the National Institutes of Health to study the use of black phosphorous nanosheets and near-infrared lasers in an effort to reverse the progression of breast cancer, making conventional chemotherapy safer and more effective.

“We were very pleased to receive NCI funding,” says Wang. “This is the federal government's principal agency for cancer research. It’s highly competitive.” Wang notes that only about 10% of the proposals for NCI funding are approved.

Wang and his team are studying the use of black phosphorous, which is biocompatible and biodegradable, so it won’t harm normal cells. Wang’s research team first manufactures very thin sheets of black phosphorous to dimensions of about 100 nanometers across by three nanometers thick. For comparison, a human hair is about 80,000 - 100,000 nanometers thick.

The team then modifies the surface of the black phosphorous nanosheets with an antibody that can specifically recognize the receptors on chemotherapy-resistant breast cancer cells. The cancer cells then uptake the nanosheets. Once the cell is full of black phosphorous, Wang’s team fires a near-infrared laser targeting the tumor. Near-infrared lasers can penetrate the skin and surrounding tissue into the tumor. The laser causes the black phosphorous inside the cell to heat up.

“It’s very easy to understand. If you wear a dark jacket in the summer, you are going to be hot,” says Wang. “This is the same thing, once we shine the laser on the cells that are full of black phosphorous, they heat up.”

Heating the cancer cells too much can cause the surrounding healthy tissue to burn, but Wang’s research found that heating the cells a small amount, to an increase of about five degrees Celsius, caused the more advanced chemotherapy-resistant forms of breast cancer to stop migrating and revert to earlier stages that are more easily treated with traditional chemotherapy.

“We don’t need to kill the cancer cell with the nanomaterial, we just need to stop metastasis of the cancer cell and make it more susceptible to chemotherapy,” says Wang. “We’re using nanomaterial to change the biology and improve the chemo-response of the cancer cells.”

Wang credits a portion of his success to the interdisciplinary collaboration and concerted efforts of the state, Mines and his colleagues in the department of nanoscience and biomedical engineering in establishing the infrastructure and expertise needed for the project. Additionally, Wang credits the contributions of project coinvestigator, Dr. Steve Smith, for work in the university’s nanophotonics lab including super-resolution imaging of cancer cells as they change with this treatment. Wang and Smith say this research would not be possible without the support provided by the South Dakota Board of Regents Collaborative Research award IMAGEN (Imaging, Materials and Genetic Engineering): Biomaterials Research in South Dakota.

Wang also praises his students for the research success achieved so far. “I especially need to thank my graduate student, Jinyuan Liu, lead author on their recent paper published in the prestigious journal ACS Nano, which laid the foundation for this successful NCI proposal,” says Wang.

Undergrad Student NCI researchers Part of the NCI R15 grant criteria focuses specifically on involving undergraduate students in the future cancer research. Wang teaches introductory courses in biomedical engineering at Mines, and he often recruits students early in their college careers to work in his laboratory. “I find great benefit in teaching these entry level courses because I can find the students who are passionate about this work,” says Wang. “We will be recruiting more undergraduates each summer as this research unfolds in the coming years.”

Annaliese Braucht, a sophomore biomedical engineering student, spent the summer of 2022 working in Wang’s team. “To get on such an incredible research opportunity in such a ground-breaking field, as an undergrad, there is not really a feeling like it, because you know your work can impact so many lives,” says Braucht.

“We have a few family members who have had cancer in the past, this gives you more drive and motivation to undertake this work,” adds Katherine Ballard, junior biomedical engineering major.

Students like Braucht and Ballard are exactly the types of undergrads the NCI funded research hopes to inspire and empower. “Both of these students have the real potential and motivation to do graduate level research in the future, and the experience they are getting this summer can set them up for future breakthroughs,” says Wang.

Wang’s team will spend the next three years on this research; this work will continue alongside other research projects already underway that are tied to Wang’s recent NSF CAREER Award.



About South Dakota Mines  

Founded in 1885, South Dakota Mines is one of the nation’s leading engineering, science and technology universities. South Dakota Mines offers bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral degrees and a best-in-class education at an affordable price. The university enrolls 2,493 students with an average class size of 24. The South Dakota Mines placement rate for graduates is 98 percent, with an average starting salary of more than $70,036. For these reasons  South Dakota Mines is ranked among the best engineering schools in the country for return on investment. Find us online at www.sdsmt.edu and on FacebookTwitter, LinkedInInstagram, and Snapchat.

Contact: Mike Ray, 605-394-6082, mike.ray@sdsmt.edu

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