As professor of surgical oncology at the University of Texas and Houston’s MD Anderson Cancer Center, he trains oncological surgeons on the latest surgical techniques. As a professor of mechanical engineering and materials science at Rice University, Dr. Curley has an in-depth understanding of physics and mechanical systems.
And yet he doesn’t spend all his time in a lab or classroom. After more than 20 years as an MD Anderson faculty member, Dr. Curley remains a caring, hands-on physician. The surgeon/scientist balances research and lab time with a desire to personally help people who are fighting cancer.
It’s not often that an oncologist is mentioned in the same sentence as actor/director Ed Burns and jazz guitarist Pat Metheny, but Dr. Curley breaks the mold of traditional physicians. Call him a rock star in the oncology world; his bold innovation has earned him and MD Anderson recognition in medical circles and beyond. For instance, in 2012 he earned the Tribeca Disruptive Innovation Award, an award honoring those whose groundbreaking ideas offer hope for humankind. Honorees include innovators from the worlds of business, technology, arts, entertainment and beyond. Dr. Curley was honored for his pioneering nano-particle, radiowave cancer research.
This kind of recognition outside the medical field shows the importance of Dr. Curley’s research — and people’s high hopes for it.
“My research laboratory has been involved in design, bench testing, preclinical testing and then clinical testing of two devices and one new drug, all of which have successfully completed the full FDA approval process,” says Dr. Curley.
Currently, his research focuses on testing a novel noninvasive radiofrequency (RF) field treatment device invented by a cancer patient, John Kanzius. This device, coupled with targeted delivery of metallic or semiconducting nanoparticles to cancer cells, releases heat under RF field induction, causing thermal cytotoxicity in cancer cells.
For the non-clinical, Dr. Curley explains his work as developing a new way to treat cancers including leukemia and melanoma, as well as breast, colon, liver, lung, pancreas and prostate cancers. This research is among the most promising cancer research today.
IT STARTED WITH A HOT DOG
The treatment is derived from a deceptively simple idea. After broadcast engineer and inventor John Kanzius — you may have seen him featured on 60 Minutes for his unlikely discovery of a novel way to treat cancer — was diagnosed in 2002 with a rare form of leukemia, he discovered first-hand how debilitating cancer treatment could be.
Necessity was the mother of Kanzius’s invention; he fashioned a crude device from old radio transmitter parts and his wife’s pie tins. He then pierced a frozen hot dog with metal probes and exposed the wiener to radio waves. Kanzius saw that the parts of the hot dog exposed to the metal probes got hot while other parts of it stayed cold. That simple idea forms the basis of Dr. Curley’s current research. In his lab, the cancer cells are heated (and killed), while the healthy cells remain untouched. Dr. Curley says that in the lab — unlike in Kanzius’s kitchen— they don’t place metal wires or probes into the cancer cells. “Instead, we use targeted — meaning, directed to the cancer cells — metallic nanoparticles,” he says.
Before Kanzius’s death in 2009 from complications related to traditional cancer treatment, he helped establish the Kanzius Cancer Research Foundation to raise awareness and money for this type of innovative research. The Kanzius Foundation helps fund Dr. Curley’s research.
And Dr. Curley’s research is moving at a rapid speed. “We are currently performing in vivo preclinical studies with this system to obtain data adequate to allow us to petition the FDA for human clinical trials,” he says. After successful testing in animals, he says he believes human trials may be within reach. He anticipates just a two- to three-year timeframe before his research gets to that stage.
The breakthrough using radio waves is simple but profound. Dr. Curley explains, “We know that radio waves penetrate the body without a problem. They pass right through us. But could a very focused type of radio wave be used to kill cancer cells? That’s what we’re studying.”
Dr. Curley uses all the tricks of his many trades in this research. As a mechanical engineer, he’s accustomed to using heat and mechanical power in the design and production of tools. But in his potentially groundbreaking work, he’s using heat to treat cancer cells. The nanoparticles are heated to temperatures that pro duce lethal damage to the cancer cells (above 55oC), and then the damaged cancer cells are pro – cessed and cleared by normal immune system cells that clear dead cells.
This research sounds like it could become a real turning point in cancer treatment. It’s not a cure, but it would certainly be the sort of once-in-a-lifetime achievement all researchers hope for. As do cancer patients. But Dr. Curley is too cautious to be prematurely giddy about it. “I’m circumspect,” he says, mentioning other highly touted research that turned out to be less than promised. All he’ll say is, “This has the potential to be very significant.”
Would this new treatment eliminate the need for chemo? “It may not eliminate it,” says Dr. Curley. “But what it could lead to is chemotherapy being administered in lower doses.” And lower doses means reduced (unpleasant) side effects.
Another plus: Cells may not develop a resistance to the radio waves as they can with chemo. “That’s what we have to prove,” says Dr. Curley.
This treatment would also be less unpleasant for the patient than chemotherapy. Dr. Curley envisions patients coming to their doctor’s office 3 to 5 times a week for 10 to 15 minutes each time. How the rest of the treatment goes is still unknown. “These are experiments that are ongoing,” Dr. Curley says. “[Treatment] will vary based on the type of tumors, size of tumors and location of tumors.” What he does know is this: “Patients will lie down on a table after first receiving an intravenous injection of nanoparticles that will go to the cancer cells. Thirty to 120 minutes later, the RF field will be activated and the cells containing the nanoparticles will be heated.
“The patient should feel no obvious discomfort other than getting a little warm by the end of the treatment, much like being outside on a hot summer day for a few minutes,” says Dr. Curley. “There’s no ionizing radiation involved. It would be noninvasive, relatively quick and — most significantly — painless.” (Dr. Curley notes that, technically, radio waves are a type of radiation, just as light is.)
The treatment could offer hope to countless cancer patients for whom the treatment can be as bad as the disease. But Dr. Curley is accustomed to offering hope to people with little of it left. That’s part of what MD Anderson Cancer Center does.
Patients go there for cutting-edge treatment and, sometimes, after other treatments have failed. The hospital and research center leads frequent clinical trials and, in Dr. Curley’s words, “We’re unafraid to be very aggressive in the treatment of cancer. We’ll pull out all the stops.”
Dr. Curley’s treatment has even led patients with pancreatic cancer, typically one of the most lethal forms, to go into remission. “We might use radiation, chemotherapy and surgery,” he says.” We’ll use a multidisciplinary approach” to attack cancer from all fronts, he says. “We’re interested in pushing the envelope. We’ll combine modalities, where it makes sense, in order to give the patient the best possible chance.”
PERSONAL PREVENTATIVE CANCER CARE
Dr. Curley says his research isn’t the only promising cancer innovation at MD Anderson now. He’s particularly excited about the personalized medicine research at MD Anderson Cancer Center Sheikh Khalifa Bin Zayed Al Nahyan Institute for Personalized Cancer Therapy.
Personalized medicine is the use of genetic marker testing to tailor an individual’s preventative care, and MD Anderson intends to be a leader in implementing personalized cancer therapy. Doctors hope to make it a reality for all patients at MD Anderson, and ultimately for cancer patients everywhere.
Thanks to Dr. Curley and his innovative research, people living with cancer have more advanced, less invasive treatment options than ever before.