For the second year in a row, a Manchester University faculty member has claimed a national award that recognizes early-career researchers’ discoveries in the laboratory. The American Association of Colleges of Pharmacy (AACP) selected Dr. Vaibhav Mundra for a New Investigator Award—a $10,000 boost for his research to create a cutting-edge method to treat multiple myeloma.

Multiple myeloma is a rare disease in which cancer cells accumulate in the bone marrow, crowding out healthy blood cells. The cancer can damage bones, the immune system and red blood cell count. Multiple myeloma is the second-most common hematologic malignancy (cancers that affect the blood and lymph system) and accounts for almost 20 percent of deaths from that type of cancer.

Doctors currently use an anti-cancer drug to treat multiple myeloma, but the drug can’t distinguish between a cancer cell and a healthy cell. Therefore, the drug kills both the cancerous tissue and the healthy tissue, which leads to side effects; this restricts the amount of the drug doctors can give to the patient.

Mundra is designing a delivery system that causes two anti-cancer drugs to attack only the tumor, or cancerous cells. His method focuses on creating tiny “spheres” called micelles, which are 1,000 times smaller than a human cell. Mundra encloses two FDA-approved chemotherapy drugs inside the nano-sized micelles.

“Generally, our capillaries are continuous, and all drugs will cross through them,” says Mundra, an assistant professor of pharmaceutical sciences. “But when you put [the drugs] in a nano-sized micelle, they cannot cross the normal capillaries, but they can cross the capillaries that are present in the tumor. By doing that, we selectively deliver the drug to the tumor, but not to the healthy tissues. That means you’re able to put more drug inside the body, and at the same time, reduce the side effects with the higher doses of these two drugs.”

Mundra says there are commercially available products that use nanotechnology to deliver anti-cancer drugs, but they’re designed for other cancers and only deliver one drug at a time, not a combination.

“[Our method is also unique because] we have a very selective system. Even if the micelles reach a healthy tissue, they will not release the drug inside the healthy tissues,” says Mundra. “Only inside the tumor will the drug come out of the micelles and show its cell-killing effect. Those two factors make this system unique, compared to other systems being tested in clinical trials.”

This is the second consecutive year that the small liberal arts school has earned an AACP New Investigator Award; Dr. Diane Calinski earned the grant last year for her research that focuses on the metabolism of synthetic drugs commonly referred to as “bath salts.”

“This is the second year in a row Manchester has received the grant in the drug delivery or pharmaceutical sciences areas, so it also opens avenues for investigators from the school [studying] different topics,” says Mundra. “It’s a small grant, so it helps me generate preliminary data to submit for future federal grants, which are bigger grants in terms of money.”

The grant generates added recognition for the growing pharmacy program at Manchester; in 2018, it was the first college in the U.S. to offer a dual degree in pharmacy and pharmacogenomics—a relatively new area in healthcare.

Mundra believes the award is a stepping stone for larger grants that could, ultimately, create a new treatment option for patients battling multiple myeloma and “move the field of drug delivery forward.”