Kenneth Olsen and David Crumrine, professors of chemistry, and Eric Schroeter, professor of biology, have received the 2011 Provost’s summer fellowship program award to support a research project focused on improving cancer therapies. The goal of the project, The Development of Folate – Targeted Photodynamic Therapy Agents, is to develop new photodynamic therapy (PDT) agents that target rapidly dividing cells found in cancers.

Photodynamic therapy is a treatment that uses light and a dye to transform oxygen into a more reactive species that is able to modify proteins in a cancer cell. In order to target specific cancer cells, Olsen, Crumine, Schroeter, and students assisting the professors in their research will attach vitamin folate to the PDT agent. Olsen explained that, because rapidly growing cells, such as cancer cells, need folate to divide, they use larger amounts of folate than normal cells. Because the PDT and the folate will be conjoined in this experiment, PDT will be brought into the cancerous cells as well.

Olsen explained that if the cell proteins modified by the PDT agent no longer work, it is possible to kill the cells.

“The method has the potential to be more selective than traditional chemotherapy because, in order to be killed, the cell must both absorb the PDT agent and be exposed to light,” Olsen says.

According to Olsen, nearly 50 percent of all known cancers have excess folate receptors and “should be susceptible to the proposed PDT approach.” He adds that excess folate receptors are especially common in ovarian and brain tumors.

Olsen, Crumrine, and Schroeter will use cell culture and zebrafish to test their new PDT agents.

The Provost’s summer fellowship is awarded annually to teams of collaborative researchers focusing on campus initiatives. At least three multi-year awards of up to $10,000 per individual are given to research teams that submit a multidisciplinary proposal that align with the major themes generally funded by nationally recognized funding agencies, such as the National Institutes of Health and National Science Foundation.