'Tractor beam' to treat pediatric cancer earns NIH Transformative Research Award

Woodruff Health Sciences Center | Oct. 5, 2021

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Rajee Suri
rajee.suri@emory.edu

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Emory provost and biomedical scientist Ravi Bellamkonda has received the National Institutes of Health Director’s Transformative Research Award for his work using electrical fields to treat a particularly aggressive pediatric cancer.

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Emory University provost and biomedical scientist Ravi Bellamkonda has received the National Institutes of Health (NIH) Director’s Transformative Research Award for his crosscutting work using electrical fields to treat a particularly aggressive pediatric cancer. 

Bellamkonda’s five-year grant supports a project to use low-voltage electrical fields to induce cancer cells to migrate out of the tissues they have invaded: a strategy he calls a “tumor tractor beam.” 

The approach could be particularly valuable for diffuse cancers, indicating that the malignant growth has spread to multiple areas of an organ or the body. Bellamkonda’s team will test the strategy with a type of pediatric tumor called diffuse intrinsic pontine glioma (DIPG); this tumor arises in the brainstem and is not amenable to surgery. 

“Our lab is interested in asking the difficult question — how do we deal with a tumor that has already spread in a sensitive organ like the brain?” says Bellamkonda. “What’s exciting is that our team hopes to design safe, low voltage electric fields to induce tumors to relocate to areas more convenient for our clinicians to treat or remove them.  This is especially important in patients who cannot avail of existing interventions such as kids.” 

The concept was first supported by Ian’s Friends Foundation, an Atlanta-based foundation whose mission is to find cures for pediatric brain tumors. The team includes Tobey MacDonald from Emory Pediatrics and Nassir Mokarram from Emory Neurosurgery, Warren Grill from Duke Biomedical Engineering, and Johnathan Lyon who led this project as a graduate student and scientist in the Bellamkonda lab.

Researchers will use mouse models to explore how DIPG cells respond to electrical fields and how to combine electrical fields with cancer drugs. Insights from studying DIPG could be applied to other diffuse cancers, which are challenging to treat and more deadly than most cancers.

In recent years, Bellamkonda’s lab has put greater focus on developing creative and innovative approaches for the treatment of adult and pediatric brain tumors. He began this research while he was at Emory some years ago and continued to pursue it as dean of the engineering school at Duke University. His initial findings on tumor cells’ responses to electrical fields was published in Scientific Reports in 2019. 

The origins of Bellamkonda’s approach to DIPG is partially rooted in his “tumor monorail” project, which tricks tumor cells out of the brain by mimicking the structure of nerve fibers. In that project, he with his team created a biomedical device that entices aggressive brain tumors such as glioblastoma to migrate to the brain’s exterior so it can be managed through treatment. This work was supported by Ian’s Friends Foundation, the National Cancer Institute through a EUREKA award and by The Marcus Foundation. The novel device earned a designation of “Breakthrough Device” from the U.S. Food & Drug Administration. 

Bellamkonda’s lab has contributed to advances in peripheral nerve repair, brain-machine interfaces and spinal cord injury repair. Bellamkonda is the author of more than 130 peer-reviewed articles with more than 16,000 citations to his work, and he holds 10 patents. 

The Transformative Research Award promotes interdisciplinary approaches to research that could create or challenge existing paradigms. Bellamkonda is one of 19 awardees in this category, which is part of a grant quartet in the NIH’s High-Risk, High-Reward Research Program.