A team of researchers from New York University has engineered nanoscale protein micelles capable of both delivering chemotherapeutic drugs and of being tracked by MRI. The innovation falls into the category of “theranostics,” which combines diagnostic capability and drug delivery, allowing researchers to administer therapy while also non-invasively monitoring the therapeutic progress and drastically reducing the need for surgical intervention.

The biosynthesized protein block copolymer contains amino acid building blocks with fluorinated thermoresponsive assembled protein (F-TRAP), which assembles into a nanoscale micelle with the noteworthy abilities.

The team is led by NYU Tandon School of Engineering professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering Jin Kim Montclare, who says: “Think of the analogy of a missile aimed at a target, with the chemotherapeutic drug as the missile and the cancer cells as the target. It’s not enough to aim blindly; you need to carefully track the missile’s progress and determine to what extent it is effective.”

Her research paper, “Protein Engineered Nanoscale Micelles for Dynamic Magnetic Resonance and Therapeutic Drug Delivery,” was published in the American Chemical Society journal ACS Nano.  The paper explains that engineered proteins provide an interesting template for designing fluorine-19 (19F) MRI contrast agents, yet progress has been hindered by the unpredictable relaxation properties of fluorine. MRI relies upon detecting differences in the relaxation rates of the protons of water molecules within tissue, but there are times when the rates do not differ sufficiently between tissue types to produce useful contrast.

As a solution, Montclare and her co-authors presented the biosynthesis of a protein block copolymer containing amino acid building blocks with 19F, termed “fluorinated thermoresponsive assembled protein” (F-TRAP), which assembles into a nanoscale micelle with noteworthy imaging properties along with the ability to encapsulate and release small therapeutic molecules.

Previously, Montclare had developed a protein-lipid system capable of carrying not only small-molecule therapeutic drugs but nucleic acids for gene therapy at the same time, as a dual payload, in order to treat cancer, diabetes, and other conditions requiring a variety of therapeutic approaches.

“The strides Jin Montclare has made in protein engineering exemplify Tandon and NYU’s commitment to collaborative, translational research with the potential to positively impact healthcare for countless patients,” notes NYU Tandon Dean Jelena Kova. “We are proud that she is effectively addressing problems of such great medical and societal importance.”