Dr. Fred Hawthorne thinks he knows a way to kill cancer cells while avoiding many of the negative side effects of traditional chemotherapy or radiation. The catch? He’s 78 years old and wants to test his theory as soon as he can.
Hawthorne, a native of Fort Scott, Kan., spent 44 years as a chemistry professor at the University of California-Los Angeles and became one of only about 35 individuals in the history of the 10-campus university system to receive the title of University Professor. Most of the other winners have won Nobel Prizes, he said.
Last March, he took emeritus status at UCLA and came to MU to continue his cancer research.
“This is coming home, sort of, to me. It’s just a whole different kind of life here, and it’s very conducive to creativity,” said Hawthorne, who was also selected to head MU’s new International Institute for Nano and Molecular Medicine. The institute, which had its groundbreaking on Nov. 20, will be used to research cures for diseases using “nanoparticles” about 100,000 times smaller than the width of a human hair.
Hawthorne specializes in a technique called boron neutron capture therapy. Also called BNCT, the treatment uses a specific variety of the element boron to target cancer cells and then destroy them by radiation with a beam of low-energy neutrons, or particles with no electric charge.
He said boron-containing molecules or nanoparticles could be injected into the body, where they would target cancer cells for death by radiation from the neutron beam. The beam can be turned on and off, Hawthorne explained, so if all goes as planned, only cancer cells would be harmed and surrounding tissue would remain intact.
In that case, BNCT would be preferable to other types of cancer treatment, which can cause collateral damage to normal body cells.
Research has already shown that boron-containing molecules and nanoparticles can be modified to find cancer cells in the body, but more research is needed to see if the entire treatment process will run smoothly, according to Hawthorne. “What is yet to be proven is that using BNCT is more effective [for some cancers] than any other method,” he said.
“Proof of principle is what we’re after right now. We must show that we have a winner.”
A slight modification of the BNCT technique also could help alleviate pain from rheumatoid arthritis, according to a study that Hawthorne and his colleagues completed in 1997, which was later recorded in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America.
Hawthorne said MU features a unique blend of resources to test the effectiveness of BNCT. The university offers a nuclear reactor, medicine school and veterinary school, all of which he needs for his work.
The reactor will provide the neutrons needed for the treatment, the medical school will make necessary pharmaceuticals, and the veterinary school will provide small animals for preliminary testing.
Only two universities in the country — MU and MIT in Cambridge, Mass. — have multi-megawatt reactors, and MU’s is twice as powerful.
A fourth resource, according to Hawthorne, is MU’s location. “The Midwest is a friendly place, and people at a midwestern university tend to be very aware of each other and willing to collaborate,” he said.
Over the coming months, the university’s research reactor will be monitored and slightly adjusted so it emits the right type of neutrons for BNCT.
“Every reactor is like a fingerprint. It’s different,” Hawthorne said. “It also varies with time.”
J. David Robertson, a chemistry professor who serves as associate director for research and education at the reactor, said preparations are in the design phase. He said a team of experts devoted specifically to BNCT are considering two reactor modifications that should produce the kind of neutrons Hawthorne needs.
Robertson said the amount of time and money needed to modify the reactor will depend on which of the two options Hawthorne chooses. Robertson’s personal goal is to have testing conditions ready by the end of 2007.
“If this is successful, both on his part and our part, what we’ll have is a facility where you can use animal models to test the effectiveness of these [compounds],” he said. “Our long-term goal is to install a facility where we could treat humans. We have to prove that these compounds that he’s making are effective.”
Hawthorne shares Robertson’s goal of beginning research by a year from now. He said any gains made in the BNCT field would not benefit current cancer patients, since the technology would first have to perform well in animal tests and then be evaluated in clinical trials. BNCT trials in humans will probably take at least five years to begin, he said.
One of Hawthorne’s biggest qualms is the way BNCT is often perceived in the scientific community and by funding institutions. The idea for the treatment was proposed in 1936, and initial BNCT tests were conducted in the 1950s and 1960s, mostly on cancer patients with glioblastoma multiforme, a severe type of brain tumor.
BNCT treatments on patients with that type of cancer were unsuccessful, but Hawthorne said the technology could have developed more effectively if first tested on a simpler type of cancer, such as tumors in the mouth or neck.
“Why mess with the computer [on a car] when you can mess with the fender and get the same result?” he said.
Hawthorne explained that the initial failures with BNCT on brain cancer caused scientific funding agencies to doubt its possibilities, but he said people today are beginning to renew their faith.
MU contributed $1 million to modify the research reactor for work with BNCT, he said, which could provide the proper resources for significant gains in the field.
Until the reactor is ready for more research, Hawthorne will have to wait. But in a few years, he hopes to prove that BNCT is the medical answer that cancer patients have needed for decades.
“BNCT is still alive, and there are people working in the area. Now it’s about who’s got the best team and the best tools,” said Hawthorne.
“The future looks very, very promising.”