Chemical Engineering Professor Receives CPRIT Grant for Cancer Research

The grant will fund a study examining drug resistance of certain cancer cells.

Wei Li

Wei Li

Wei Li, an assistant professor in the Department of Chemical Engineering at Texas Tech University, has been awarded a grant from the Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas (CPRIT) to study the drug resistance mechanism used by certain cancer cells.

The grant, for $200,000, was one of 16 grants awarded under the High-Impact/High-Risk Research category totaling more than $3.1 million and one of 28 CPRIT grants totaling approximately $60 million. High-Impact/High-Risk grants are expected to bring about new insights and ideas into cancer diagnosis, treatment and prevention.

“It is a high-risk, high-reward project, so to be honest, because the proposed approaches are so new and exciting, there will be a chance that we will not reach our research goal,” Li said. “It’s never easy to go directly to the results and have an exciting outcome in a very short time, but more realistically, by researching this important problem, we can have discoveries from it, and those discoveries can help us finally reach our goal.”

The grant is for the two-year research project titled “Integrated On-Chip Networks for Investigating Exosome-Mediated Drug Expulsion,” which will examine the methods some cancer cells use to expel chemotherapeutic drugs. Li, along with colleague Jungkyu Kim, an assistant professor in the Department of Mechanical Engineering, hopes to develop a microchip using multiple cascading modules to investigate the mechanism of cellular drug expulsion and why certain combinations of chemotherapeutic and gene-targeting drugs are more effective than traditional approaches.

"I am very pleased and proud of Dr. Li,” Whitacre College of Engineering dean Al Sacco Jr. said. “As a young faculty member it takes courage to go after high-risk research. It is the kind of discovery research that leapfrogs existing approaches and can make a profound difference in the way we combat cancer. Additionally, the collaboration with Dr. Kim is exactly the kind of cooperation between complimented disciplines that can result in new and innovative therapies. This grant is good for Dr. Li, good for Texas Tech and good for the cancer research community."

Al Sacco

Al Sacco Jr.

According to Li, recent studies have shown a certain subpopulation of cancer cells expel chemotherapeutic drugs using exosomes, which are extracellular compartments that use specialized transporters. But how exosomes work is still unclear as scientists know very little about the specific molecule contents either inside or attached to the exosome.

This presents a challenge to cancer treatments, particularly with the more aggressive or advanced forms of cancer. Li said research has been limited by technical issues with molecular analysis of exosomes, the length of the process, large sample volumes, and that simplified models don’t accurately represent a cancer tumor’s complex network.

“Our goal is to basically understand how these cells uptake the drugs and then how they use exosomes as cargo to get them out,” Li said. “Especially in cancer cells, they are doing that to develop a drug resistance.”

Li hopes to increase the sensitivity and accuracy of drug-resistance testing while eliminating the limitations.

Since 2009, CPRIT has awarded $1.33 billion in grants to Texas researchers, institutions and organizations in an effort to prevent and treat all forms of cancer. Grants are recommended by program review councils and approved by an oversight committee. Funding is provided through research, prevention and product development research programs.

Grants provided by CPRIT have helped fund more than $2 million in educational, training, prevention and early detection services to all 254 counties in Texas. For more on CPRIT, visit its website.


Whitacre College of Engineering

The Edward E. Whitacre Jr. College of Engineering

The Edward E. Whitacre Jr. College of Engineering has educated engineers to meet the technological needs of Texas, the nation and the world since 1925.

Approximately 4,300 undergraduate and 725 graduate students pursue bachelors, masters and doctoral degrees offered through eight academic departments: civil and environmental, chemical, computer science, electrical and computer, engineering technology, industrial, mechanical and petroleum.

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