Tiny Targets, Huge Goals

Daniel Hayes’ nanoparticle research leads to treatments that inhibit cancerous tumors from growing.

conceptual graphic of lab research, courtesy

When he was a bioengineering professor at LSU, Daniel Hayes ’97 Sci, ’04 PhD Eng explored using custom nanoparticles—ultrafine particles between 1 and 100 nanometers in diameter—to deliver targeted drug treatment to cancer cells. But he didn’t have the resources at the time to make it happen. The Millennium Science Complex, and the collaborative support structure it provided, was a major driver in Hayes’ decision to return to his graduate alma mater in 2016.

“Coming back, one of my goals was try to take that technology and move it into that cancer space,” Hayes says. “And without that direct interaction between Huck and MRI, I wouldn’t have been able to pull that off.”

Hayes and other Penn State researchers, including Adam Glick, professor of molecular toxicology and carcinogenesis in the Huck Institutes of the Life Sciences, used nanoparticles to deliver localized treatments through an IV to cancer cells in mice. The microRNA (miRNA) attached to those particles prohibited the messenger RNA (mRNA) in the cancer cells from operating, killing the cancer cells and reducing tumors in certain types of skin, oral, lung, and most recently, brain cancers. 

“We make a unique particle composition for each cancer type,” Hayes says. “We identify the microRNA that the cancers are sensitive to, and then we make a mimic of that microRNA. It’s a little bit different for each cancer.”

One of the things Hayes likes most about the Millennium Science Complex is the close physical proximity he has to faculty from Huck and the Materials Research Institute. That proximity has led to relationships Hayes believes he would not have formed otherwise. “It’s an old cliché,” Hayes says, “but collisions lead to innovation and collaboration.”