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By measuring the mass of molecules, Nathalie Agar, PhD, makes images.
With a mass spectrometry platform, Agar can trace the flow of cancer drugs given to research animals, noting whether they slip through the "blood-brain barrier," tight-fitting blood vessels that keep chemicals from reaching the brain.
For her studies of drug penetration in tumors and in classifying tumor types, the mass spectrometry platform measures the distribution of proteins, lipids, and other specific tissue components. From these measurements, computers can construct vivid images, including 3-D views of the blood-brain barrier. In a clinical trial, mass spectrometry technology is enabling Agar, in collaboration with Dana-Farber researchers, to examine brain tumors removed from patients to determine whether drugs given before surgery hit their tumor targets. She's developing a GPS-aided mass spectrometry instrument that would guide neurosurgeons during an operation so that a brain tumor could be removed more extensively with ultimate preservation of healthy tissue.
Agar directs the Surgical Molecular Imaging Laboratory at Brigham and Women's Hospital, and also has an appointment in Cancer Biology at Dana-Farber. A major goal of her research is to provide more and better data to personalize treatments for brain tumors and other cancers.
Agar, who holds a PhD in chemistry, and Charles Stiles, PhD, a Dana-Farber cancer biologist, are testing potential brain tumor drugs for their ability to cross the blood-brain barrier. Agar's technique allows researchers to track a drug's location after it is administered, without the need for costly, cumbersome fluorescent or radioactive dyes.
Agar is also collaborating in a study of brain tumors caused by the spread of malignant cells from breast cancers. "We'll use the mass spectrometer to examine tissue samples removed during surgery to see if the drug is getting into the tumor and how it's distributed," explains Agar.
Much of her research, she says, is aimed at designing better treatments by analyzing different tumor cells and matching them to the most effective drugs. "But the first thing we need to determine is whether the drug makes it into the tumor — this is a fundamental question."
Paths of Progress Spring/Summer 2013 Table of Contents