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Needham Receives Prestigious Professorship

As a new Niels Bohr Professor, Duke engineer David Needham will establish the Center for Single Particle Science and Engineering at the University of Southern Denmark (SDU), in Odense, Denmark.

One of the center’s primary goals will be to develop novel strategies for using micro and nanotechnology to improve drug delivery, specifically for cancer treatments.

This study of single microparticles one particle at a time is important to many other fields in which colloids, surfaces, nano-science and nano-technology impact food, drugs, pollutant control, or consumer products, such as paint and toothpaste. Biologically, this field of study impacts how all the cells of every living organism on the planet functions.

Needham, professor of mechanical engineering and materials science at Duke’s Pratt School of Engineering, is one of six international scientists to receive this prestigious award. His research will be supported over the next five years by $5 million from the Danish National Research Foundation, plus $1 million in co-financing from SDU. He will split his time between Duke and SDU beginning Sept. 1.

In addition to conducting research in collaboration with Danish and other European scientists, Needham also plans to a establish graduate-level program to support Danish and Duke graduate students in many disciplines where a fundamental understanding of micro and nanoparticles and surface phenomena is important to their particular fields of study.

“Not only will we be working with engineers, but also with investigators from many disciplines, including chemistry, physics, pharmacy and medicine,” Needham said.

Such a graduate program will likely constitute a series of hands-on and “minds-on” workshops, labs, seminars, and discussion groups, which will allow Needham to further apply his unique educational methods.  Developed over the last ten years, these methods include his EDU-K pedagogy of learning (Experiment, Discover, Uncover principles with experts, leading to new Knowledge for the student). "

Students will be shown how to reverse engineer problems that have already been solved and then forward-engineer solutions to new problems that haven’t been solved, he said.

These problems can be in many of the engineering, basic science, and life science disciplines as well as nature itself. “We also plan to internationalize the center by collaborating with scientists, students and entrepreneurs across Europe and the U.S.,” Needhamsaid.

Single particle science and engineering employs range of techniques and tools for exploring natural, scientific, and technological phenomena at the microscopic and nano scales. It is principally centered around a micropipet, and includes the study of gas, liquid, and solid as microparticles, as might be found in gas bubbles or oil droplets in water, or the formation of microcrystals of drugs. It addresses a range of phenomena including how particles are formed, how they might dissolve, and the surface tensions at their interfaces.

One such invention, developed by Needham used these very same techniques to study the lipid bilayer membrane and make it thermally sensitive for drug delivery to cancers. Called low-temperaturesensitive liposome, it is currently in clinical trials for treating liver cancer. It involves encapsulating chemotherapy drugs in tiny fat nano-capsules. These capsules are made to trap anti cancer drugs and were designed by Needham to release their drugs only when they pass through the blood stream of a warmed tumor.

In a long-time collaboration with colleague Mark Dewhirst in Duke’s radiation oncology department, heat is applied to the tumor using traditional hyperthermia techniques -- including microwaves, radio frequency waves, or even a warm catheter, depending on where tumor is and its size. This application of mild hyperthermia acts to melt the nanosphere’s encapsulating membrane, releasing the drug directly into the tumor.

Now, with these new funds in Denmark he plans to explore new mechanisms and new advanced formulations for treating metastatic cancer with a family of drugs that traditionally are very difficult to formulate and administer in high enough doses to cancer patients.  These drugs are quite insoluble in water, having a consistency and properties more like candle wax. They are the proverbial “brick-dust” of pharmaceutical therapeutics, he said

Needham’s approach is to reverse engineer the way nature makes, transports, and its cells take up its own very waxy materials like cholesterol and lipids. These are formed and transported in the body as low density lipoprotein (LDL) particles. Needham will now create similar particles that are loaded with the waxy drug.  Cancers are known to take up these LDL particles in unusually large amounts because they represent a main source of nutrients that are needed for them to grow and spread.

The Niels Bohr Professorship will allow Needham to begin this new phase of his research, and seek additional funding to explore these so called “endogenous” mechanisms for drug formulation, transport through the body, and how they are taken in by cancer cells, or as Needham terms it -- “Put it in their food.”

“We hope this program will strengthen the international dimension in a number of already very strong research areas and create an increased dynamic and interaction with research from abroad,” said Klaus Bock, Chairman of the Danish National Research Foundation Board. “In this internet age we can work with people and research in places throughout the world, but for something extra and to have more fruitful cooperation, we rely on personal and immediate contact. It is the possibility that we created this dynamic with this Niels Bohr program.”

Needham has served on the faculty at Duke for 25 years. At Duke, he also has a secondary appointment in the department of biomedical engineering, as well as at the Center for Bioinspired Materials and Material Systems and the Center for Biomolecular and Tissue Engineering and is a member of the Duke Cancer Institute.

He graduated from Trent Polytechnic in Nottingham with a BS in applied chemistry, and completed his graduate work at the University of Nottingham, U.K. in physical chemistry.  Post-doctoral research positions at the Physiological Laboratory in Cambridge UK, and University of British Columbia retrained him in membrane biophysics and the mechanochemistry of lipids and cells. In 1978, while a graduate student, motivated by his mother’s breast cancer, he focused his efforts on cancer research.

With one treatment that is finishing its phase III clinical trial, Needham is now poised with new collaborators at SDU, as well as the pharmacy school in Copenhagen and his current scientific and clinical collaborators  at Duke, to fulfill that dream.

Niels Bohr, after whom the professorship is named, was a Nobel Prize-winning Danish physicist often considered one of the most influential scientists of the 20th century.   Interestingly for Needham’s work on single particles, colloids and surfaces, prompted by a gold medal competition sponsored by the Royal Danish Academy of Sciences and Letters in 1905, Bohr conducted a series of experiments to examine the properties of surface tension, using his father's laboratory in the university, familiar to him from assisting there since childhood.