Professor Kuncic will be working at Harvard for two months later this year, collaborating on a project that offers hope of better treatment for cancer patients.
For Zdenka Kuncic, multidisciplinary research is a natural step for a professor of physics to take.
“Physics has a lot to offer to other disciplines,” she says. “The bottom line is that physics is everywhere. No matter what you do or see, you will find physics there.”
After graduating from Sydney with first class honours in physics and gaining a PhD at Cambridge, she has taught at the University since 2005. She is now Director of Community and Research at the Australian Institute for Nanoscale Science and Technology.
Her own research has increasingly focused on the intersection between physics and medicine – and she is currently collaborating on a research project that offers hope of better targeted cancer treatments, and may provide relief from the damaging side-effects of chemotherapy.
With a newly-awarded Harvard-Australia Fellowship from the Harvard Club of Australia, she will be travelling to Boston in August and September to work with Dr Georges El Fakhri from Harvard Medical School, director of the Gordon Center for Medical Imaging.
Their research is looking at the use of magnetic nanoparticles to provide vital information for the detection and imaging of cancer cells.
“We know that the main cause of cancer death isn’t from the primary tumour,” said Professor Kuncic. “It’s from metastasis where cells break off from the primary tumour and travel to another part of the body, appearing first at nearby lymph nodes.”
In an effort to detect metastases at an early stage, and enable clinicians to prescribe a suitable treatment plan, researchers at Harvard have developed an iron oxide nanoparticle that can be intravenously injected into the bloodstream. There the nanoparticles are absorbed by the body’s immune cells and carried to the lymph nodes – the body’s first line of defence against cancer cells.
By attaching a tracer to the nanoparticles, the researchers are able to track them using PET (positron emission tomography) technology. Importantly, the nanoparticles also help to enhance magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) and the hope is that by combining PET and MRI scans, scientists will get a clear picture of the metastasized tumour cells in the lymph nodes.
“It gives us a huge opportunity to detect metastasis early, and to diagnose and treat it,” said Professor Kuncic, whose contribution to the project focuses on the implementation of new imaging technology.
Using PET and MRI together – this really is the future, and it removes the need for radiation dose associated with x-ray CT scans.
A second stage of the project, once the metastasised tumour cells have been located, is to eliminate them efficiently.
Professor Kuncic explained: “We want to add a radio-isotope to the nanoparticle that will kill the cancer cells in a highly targeted way. As long as the nanoparticles are somewhere near the cancer cells, they will kill them.
“At the moment the only way patients can get treated for metastasis is with chemotherapy which just goes everywhere and causes people to get sick. The side effects are a big issue with current strategies, so we’re looking at a better, targeted alternative.”
Clinical trials for the procedure are still more than three years away, but Professor Kuncic added: “Cancer nanomedicine is now a very big field and a lot of effort is going into specificity of targeting – making sure that nanoparticles go into the right cells.”
Her involvement in research projects where physics and medicine overlap is, as she points out, not a new occurrence.
“It’s been happening for decades – the very first Nobel prize in physics was awarded for the discovery of x-rays, which later led to the discovery of the DNA double helix, which later led to the invention of x-ray CT.
“Historically there’s a pattern of physicists thinking about how we can look inside the body and develop probes to better understand what’s going on and help people who are ill.”