LONG BEACH - Collagen is widely known as the substance used in plastic surgery to firm lips and smooth wrinkles.
But researchers are now hoping that the protein, a naturally occurring substance in the body, may hold the key for better cancer treatments that minimize painful side effects.
At Cal State Long Beach, biochemistry professor Katarzyna Slowinska is researching new ways to fight cancer with the use of collagen. This year, she received a four-year, $433,500 grant from the National Institutes of Health to continue her studies on how short strands of amino acids, called peptides, can serve as tiny delivery vehicles for cancer treatments.
Slowinska said collagen, a main building block in human connective tissue, has strong molecules that can be manipulated into carrying and releasing cancer drugs into tumors and even inside tumor cells.
"Collagen has the structure of a triple helix, so it looks like DNA, but instead of having two helices, it has three strands twisted together," she said. "This triple helix makes collagen rigid and strong, which is why it is a main component of connective tissues."
Slowinska said cancer cells are difficult to distinguish from healthy cells, so traditional treatments flood the body with medicine in order to target the abnormal cells. The process, however, is taxing on the body and can cause side effects such as hair loss, exhaustion and organ failure.
Slowinska hopes her research can help lead to a more targeted form of treatment where a collagen gel infused with life-saving cancer drugs is loaded into a syringe and injected directly into the tumor area. The tiny molecules are small enough to fit through the tumor's vascular system and target abnormal cells, she said.
"Collagen is naturally derived and it's safer than other treatments so you will not have the bad side effects," she said.
Slowinska, along with 18 of her students, are testing seven lines of cancer cells known to be affected by the drug Paclitaxel, which is used in chemotherapy.
She plans to test other treatments and eventually move on to animal testing. Slowinska hopes her research will add to the larger body of knowledge on how to fight cancer and other diseases.
"This is really the beginning of the idea of how you can stabilize the peptides to use them for many different things," she said. "Paclitaxel is the model for us, but there are many things you can deliver."
As part of Cal State Long Beach's Homecoming Week events, Slowinska, a professor since 2004, will discuss her discoveries on Thursday in the campus Chart Room restaurant. A reception begins at 6:30 p.m. followed by the presentation, "And You Thought Collagen was Just for Smoothing Wrinkles," at 7 p.m.
The event is free to the public. For reservations visit www.beach-chemistry.com or call 562-985-7446.