Medulloblastoma (MB) is a big and potentially terrifying word given to a fast-growing, malignant brain tumor that attacks the cerebellum. It accounts for just 1-2 percent of all primary brain tumors, but it is the most common malignant brain tumor in children under 10.

Like most brain tumors, the typical treatment for MB involves surgery followed by radiation and chemotherapy. While the survival rate for children is 60 to 80 percent (depending on the child’s age when diagnosed), the conventional treatment can lead to side effects, including neurocognitive deficits that diminish quality of life.

To address this challenge, YongTae Kim, Assistant Professor, is working to give kids a powerful new vehicle for successful drug treatment, without the side effects, and he recently received an R21 grant from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to support the early stages of his project.

Kim is developing nanocarriers that are capable of getting past the brain’s stubborn natural defense system to deliver potent therapeutic payloads to specific targets. 

“For any disease in the brain, it’s difficult to deliver drugs because we have the blood-brain barrier, or BBB, and it has limited permeability,” says Kim, whose lab is headquartered in the Marcus Nanotechnology Building. “The goal of this study is to use our microfluidic technology to develop nanocarriers for targeted delivery of drugs to brain tumors.”

Kim also is employing his cutting-edge microfluidic technology to engineer nanocarriers that allow for targeted delivery of drugs to treat atherosclerosis (a project for which he was awarded Scientist Development Grant from the American Heart Association). But the R21 project will require different nanocarriers.

Basically, the BBB is like a very choosy doorman, allowing only limited admission to our gray matter, turning back everything else, including good medicine. “Humans are well designed,” says Kim. “Different vasculature in the brain. We need to design unique nanocarriers to cross this barrier.” 

For this project, Kim is collaborating with Tobey MacDonald, associate professor in the department of pediatrics at Emory University School of Medicine and director of pediatric neuro-oncology for the Aflac Cancer and Blood Disorders Center at Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta. 

The NIH R21 is an exploratory/developmental grant mechanism that will contribute $423,000 to Kim’s project over two years. 

“If we are successful with this idea,” says Kim, “it could have a huge impact in the field.”

Writer: Jerry Grillo