Last Tuesday, graduate student Geoffrey von Maltzahn was named winner of the Lemelson-MIT Student Prize and received an unrestricted cash gift of $30,000 for his innovative work in cancer therapy.
Currently pursuing his doctorate at the Harvard-MIT Division of Health Sciences & Technology, von Maltzahn is working to combine nanotechnology, medicine, and engineering to improve tumor detection and revolutionize chemotherapy treatment.
One of von Maltzahn’s most notable inventions is the application of gold nanorods to detect and destroy tumor cells. His nanorods are very small particles on the nanometer scale that are specially designed to absorb infrared radiation.
When these nanoparticles are injected into the blood stream, they concentrate around cancerous tumor cells. Once the tumors have been found, the nanorods’ high absorption ability allows them to be heated up to toxic levels using infrared light, killing all nearby tumor cells.
At age 28, von Maltzahn has already made a significant impact in the fields of medicine and nanotechnology. He has not only submitted 19 scholarly papers and eight patent applications, but he has also founded two companies: Nanopartz, Inc. and Resonance Therapeutics.
“The significant motivation behind my work,” von Maltzahn said, “is seeing the toxicity and limited efficacy of cancer therapy.”
“Less than one percent of chemotherapy drugs go to tumor cells,” von Maltzahn said. The remaining 99 percent of the drugs maliciously affect normal healthy cells, resulting in undesirable side effects like hair-loss and nausea.
Von Maltzahn has dedicated his time to developing new treatments that will minimize therapy side effects and improve tumor eradication.
In fact, he noted that the particles act similarly to antennas and can absorb infrared radiation 10,000 times better than chlorophyll.
Von Maltzahn explained that in laboratory trials involving mice, all of the tumors were eradicated in only two weeks using this approach.
To introduce his nanorod invention to industry, von Maltzahn founded a company called Resonance Therapeutics this past fall. This spring, he will be looking for seed funding to support his new entrepreneurial venture. The company owns exclusive rights to his nanorod cancer treatment in clinical applications.
Although it may take five to ten years to introduce the nanorod therapy to current cancer therapy treatment, von Maltzahn is optimistic of its potential, saying “the time line is long, but we’re hopeful that this could make a difference for patients.”
On Apr. 24, von Maltzahn will defend his thesis which entails a systems approach to tumor detection. “By engineering nanoparticles to communicate,” said von Maltzahn, “tumor therapy and detection may become much more efficient.”
Von Maltzahn explained how in natural systems, like the immune system, particles interact to create a network that can quickly detect illnesses and other abnormalities. Von Maltzahn hopes to implement the same network with his tumor-detecting nanoparticles: if one particle detects a tumor, then all other particles will also know the location of that tumor.
Von Maltzahn has won several awards for his research including MIT’s Outstanding Undergraduate Research Mentor Award, the National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship, and the Biomedical Engineering Society Graduate Research award. He is also an active participant in MIT’s Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program (UROP), supervising fourteen undergraduates and helping them get involved in cancer therapy treatments.
Every year, the Lemelson-MIT Program recognizes an MIT senior or graduate student who has demonstrated innovation and invention in his or her field. A diverse panel of MIT alumni specially selected by the Lemelson-MIT program determines the winner of the $30,000 award. Past student winners include last year’s recipient Timothy K. Lu ‘03, who is currently pursuing his M.D. for his work involving gene detection and sensing.
In addition to the $30,000 student prize, the Lemelson-MIT program also awards inventors with its prestigious $500,000 Lemelson-MIT Prize and $100,000 Award for Sustainability. The Lemelson-MIT program will announce the winners of these awards later this spring. More information on the prizes and past winners is available on the Lemelson-MIT program website, http://web.mit.edu/invent.