James Tunnell

Treating cancer can be tricky. We know that early detection is best, but the detection process itself can be invasive, and some cancers are difficult to detect until the end stages. Removing tumors is not always exact, and sometimes healthy tissue is destroyed while stray cancer cells are missed.

James Tunnell, associate professor of biomedical engineering, is working to change that.

“Our goal is to detect and treat cancer at the cellular level and at its earliest stage when survival rates are highest,” he said.

Tunnell is working to design gold nanoparticles that can be injected into the bloodstream, where they will seek out and attach themselves to cancer cells within the body. Under weak light, the nanoparticles act as imaging agents that make it possible to locate the cancer cells.

The nanoparticles are not merely on a reconnaissance mission but a search-and-destroy mission. Higher levels of light can be used to heat the same particles, killing the cancer cells while leaving nearby healthy cells unharmed.

Much scientific research is funded by grants, but first those grants have to be secured. Tunnell was able to use seed money from a philanthropic foundation to begin a research collaboration with MD Anderson Cancer Center. The result was a productive collaboration that led to multiple grants from the National Institutes of Health.