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Professor Christine Allen uses nanotechnology to ensure cancer-fighting drugs get where they need to go

Many new drugs under development have the potential to do some good. But after being swallowed or injected, they scatter, dissolve or disappear in the body before making it to the site of the disease.

This is where Christine Allen comes in. To get these drugs to where they’re supposed to go, the assistant professor of pharmacy at U of T is building nanoparticles to encase the drug molecules. Then she targets these nanoparticles to breast cancer cells in much the same way as her colleague Raymond Reilly targets his radiotherapy. She attaches them to epidermal growth factor peptides, which smuggle the nanoparticles inside the cancer cells where the encased drug is released. Her creations are so small that she has to use an electron microscope to see them.

Allen, whose doctoral work was in polymer chemistry, researches her unique nanoparticles in a distinctly high-tech fashion. Using software that produces 3-D images, she creates virtual models of the new materials used to make up the particles on the supercomputer at the Molecular Design and Information Technology Centre, a leading Canadian academic bioinformatics centre devoted to drug design. Allen says the centre’s software predicts how these materials will interact with the drug they’re carrying – helping her rule out certain designs and saving the inestimable expense of making mistakes in the lab.

While the work of this avowed “chemistry geek” is still in the early stages, she is beginning to test some of her unique compounds on animals. And she has plans to collaborate with other scientists, such as Reilly, to create hybrids of their targeted approach. “As a material scientist working in nanotechnology, I couldn’t be in a better institution,” says Prof. Allen, who appreciates being in close proximity to other like-minded researchers at the Leslie Dan Faculty of Pharmacy. “I can just walk down the hall and get answers to all sorts of questions.”

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