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The newspaper of The Johns Hopkins University November 12, 2007 | Vol. 37 No. 11
Postgrad Student Wins Top Prize for Cancer Therapy Invention

Ian Cheong's invention — an approach to killing cancer that uses bacteria and drug-filled molecular capsules — brought him the top award and a cash prize of $25,000.
Photo by Will Kirk / HIPS

By Vanessa Wasta
Johns Hopkins Medicine

A postgraduate student at the Johns Hopkins Kimmel Cancer Center has won top prize in a national inventors competition for a new combo approach to killing cancer using bacteria and drug-filled molecular capsules.

Ian Cheong is the grand prize winner of the 2007 Collegiate Inventors Competition hosted by the National Inventors Hall of Fame. The award was announced Nov. 1 at the California Institute of Technology campus, where Cheong and 10 other finalists presented their inventions to a panel of eight judges, including several Hall of Fame inductees. Along with the award, Cheong will receive a $25,000 cash prize, and $15,000 will go to his adviser, cancer researcher Bert Vogelstein.

"It's a great way to deliver drug therapies," said Vogelstein, professor and co-director of the Ludwig Center at Johns Hopkins and a Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator. "The approach could be used in a variety of targeted therapies for cancer, and because many drugs can be packaged this way, it could have general utility."

In designing the molecular package, Cheong's goal was to find a mode of transport that avoided healthy cells and delivered cancer-killing chemicals to the diseased cells alone. His solution was to add specially packaged chemotherapy to a bacterial attack against tumors.

"Packaged" cancer drugs currently are available in microscopic fatty capsules called liposomes, which gravitate to tumors because they are too large to fit through the skins of tightly woven blood vessels surrounding normal tissue and small enough to slide through tumor vasculature.

Before the chemo packs moved into place within the tumor, Cheong added genetically modified bacteria that have a special affinity for the oxygen-starved core of tumors. The bacteria secrete an enzyme, which Cheong dubbed liposomase, that melts away the outer layer of liposomes, releasing their anticancer contents.

Tests in nearly 100 mice wiped out large and small tumors and cured more than two-thirds of them. The report was published in the Nov. 24 issue of Science.

Cheong says that a laboratory colleague urged him to enter the competition. "I'm really glad he encouraged me to compete. It's been an incredible experience meeting all of the inventors and sharing my work with them," he said.

Cheong, 33, is a native of Singapore and received his doctorate in cell and molecular medicine from the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. Before pursuing a career in cancer research, Cheong was an attorney in a Singapore law firm, where working on the technical aspects of some cases, he says, drew him to the creative aspects of scientific research. He is completing postdoctoral studies at the Johns Hopkins Kimmel Cancer Center.

Panelists for the competition made their selections from more than 100 undergraduate and graduate applicants enrolled at 70 colleges and universities across the United States and Canada. In addition to Cheong's being awarded the grand prize, two other finalists received cash awards of $15,000. Sponsors of the competition are the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office and the Abbott Fund, the philanthropic arm of Abbott Laboratories.


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