A defining feature of NYU Abu Dhabi Assistant Professor of Chemistry Ali Trabolsi's office is the large whiteboard that looms on the wall. Decked in hexagons, subscripts, curt lines, and symbols, he uses this simple technology to illustrate the makeup of the complex chemical structures he and his team study at the University's Center for Science and Engineering.
At the Center, Trabolsi leads the Trabolsi Research Group, which focuses on supramolecular multifunctional systems: these are modified molecules developed by chemists for applications in a variety of fields, including medicine and engineering. In the past two years, the group has produced cutting-edge research that may help improve the effectiveness of drugs used for cancer treatment.
The group nurtures a collaborative approach that draws on the varied expertise of Trabolsi and the other researchers. Indeed, he describes his own training in chemistry as an amalgamation of several approaches. As a PhD student he studied physical chemistry at the University of Strasbourg in France. Following his PhD, he focused on organic chemistry, host-guest chemistry, and supramolecular chemistry in positions at the University of California Los Angeles and Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois. He joined NYUAD two years ago, in August 2011, after working as a research scientist at King Abdullah University for Science and Technology in Thuwal, Saudi Arabia. "When I moved to NYUAD I decided to take a bit from all of my past experiences," he said.
Trabolsi’s composite background, combined with those of his team, has produced important research. With NYUAD Postdoctoral Associate Farah Benyettou and NYUAD Assistant Professor of Practice of Biology Rana Al-Assah, he recently published a paper in the Journal of Materials Chemistry B that describes the creation of a composite nanoparticle that may potentially be used to treat cancer.
It is no coincidence that Benyettou and Trabolsi collaborated on this project. "When I started at NYUAD," Trabolsi said, "I hired Farah, who is the main author of the article. I said, 'Why don't we combine your expertise in iron-oxide nanoparticles and my expertise in supramolecular chemistry, and let's come up with a new idea' — and that's exactly what we've done."
Benyettou has studied iron-oxide nanoparticles for years: "She knows how to make them, she knows how to control their size, and she knows how to functionalize and characterize them," Trabolsi explained.
Also trained in France, Benyettou studied physical chemistry before working toward a PhD that focused on a new way to treat cancer with magnetic iron-oxide nanoparticles. And in her first postdoctoral fellowship she learned many of the techniques she has applied at NYUAD.
For Benyettou the collaborative culture of the research group has been a boon: "When I joined this group, Ali let me do the research I wanted to do without any boundaries, without any limits."
Benyettou, Trabolsi, and their colleagues began the experiment with magnetic iron-oxide nanoparticles, like the ones Benyettou worked with on her PhD. These particles — which look like liquid red iodine when mixed with water — hold great potential as nanomaterials in medicine because they are extremely small, non-toxic, and can be used as both imaging agents and for drug delivery. The researchers then attached a series of macrocycle "containers" to the iron-oxide nanoparticles (see Illustration 1). "By coupling a container to the surface, the new nanoparticles can be used for a dual application: for MRI and also to deliver an anti-cancer drug" Benyettou said. This is called a theranostic system, in that it would allow physicians to monitor and control the distribution of drugs in a patient.
In this initial experiment, the authors opted not to deliver a drug, but to test the delivery of a dye to prove the success of their idea. The dye, called Nile Red, is not fluorescent on its own, but when the dye is added to the macrocycle container, it becomes fluorescent. This fluorescence allows researchers to track the nanoparticle throughout cells (see Illustration 2, which shows the particle within the cell).
Moreover, the dual action makes it possible for the nanoparticle to be used not only for MRI but also for treating cancers locally, as they are magnetic and physicians could potentially control the location and distribution of the particles. This would have positive application in chemotherapy cancer treatments.
"The nanoparticles can be guided with a magnet and thus can be localized in a particular part of the body. This may help reduce the side effects of cancer drugs," Benyettou explained. "That's the problem with chemotherapy: when you administer the drug it goes everywhere; it kills cancer cells, but it also kills healthy cells." By controlling the distribution of cancer treatment chemicals in the body, this new development may also help prevent damage that is caused to healthy cells.
What comes next? Benyettou and Trabolsi have written a proposal to add a popular cancer drug to the nanoparticle to see how this modification affects cancer cells in living tissue. They are also working on a variety of techniques for controlling the release of the drug from the macrocycle.