Engineer develops new way to fight wife's cancer

Cal Tech chemical engineer Mark Davis used nanotechnology as an alternative to chemotherapy in treating cancer.
CBS News

In the battle against cancer, there is a promising new treatment -- a high-tech therapy that targets tumors and with fewer painful side effects than chemotherapy. CBS News correspondent Dr. Jon LaPook examines how this treatment was developed.

Mark Davis, a chemical engineer at the California Institute of Technology, was a complete stranger to the world of medicine. His expertise was in the oil industry.

Then in 1995, his wife Mary was diagnosed with breast cancer.

"There were many times during the therapies where I just really wanted to give up," said Mary. "I thought the treatment was going to kill me rather than the disease itself."

The chemo killed the cancer but wreaked havoc on her body, permanently damaging her hearing.

"When she finished going through this," said Mark Davis, "she said, 'This is just awful. There really should be better ways to treat cancer patients where you can have high quality of life.' She said, 'Why don't you guys start working on it at Cal Tech?' I'm like, 'Come on, I don't know anything about cancer.' And her response to that was, 'What kind of excuse is that?'"

So at age 40, Davis changed his focus and -- with no medical training -- developed a novel way to treat cancer.

"So cancer treatment is an engineering problem to some extent?" LaPook asked Davis.

"It is to me," he said, "and that's the way I looked at it from the very beginning."

He turned to nanotechnology -- engineering tiny particles to do big things. In a video, they're seen penetrating the outer membranes of cells.

Chemotherapy has toxic side effects because when the molecules are injected into veins, they are so small they can escape the blood stream and damage normal cells along with cancerous ones.

Davis built a new drug delivery system. He loaded hundreds of molecules of a cancer drug into microscopic spheres built from sugar.

They are too big to slip out of the bloodstream until they reach their target. This allows them to destroy solid tumors, like lung and breast cancer, and spare healthy tissue.

David Cheresh of the University of California San Diego is also working on nanomedicine for cancer.

"So in effect we can reduce the level of drugs to the surrounding tissues, the normal tissues, increase the drug at the site of the tumor, and really get more bang for our buck," he said.

Davis' nanoparticles have been tried in more than 50 patients in the U.S. and will be tested at more than 20 sites across Europe.

So far, treatment using nanotechnology shows far fewer side effects than traditional chemotherapy. But using it to treat cancer is still in its infancy.

"Almost every month," said Mary Davis, "I get a phone call from someone who has a friend who's been diagnosed with cancer. And it's always in the back of my mind: 'Mark, hurry, up, hurry up!'"

"This was a good start," Mark Davis said, "but as engineers we always want to do better. We want to make version 2.0 and 3.0, and hopefully it will just keep getting better and better."

Researchers are now filling these nanoparticles with all sorts of treatments -- from chemotherapy to molecules that actually repair the broken genetic material that makes cancer cells grow out of control.

  • Jon Lapook
    Jonathan LaPook

    Dr. Jonathan LaPook is the chief medical correspondent for CBS News. Follow him on Twitter at @DrLaPook