Uli Wiesner, Cornell University – Molecular-Engineering Cancer Therapeutics

On Cornell University College of Engineering Week:  Some of the best engineering successes can be hard to see.

Uli Wiesner, professor of materials science and engineering, discusses one tiny step forward in treating cancer.

Uli Wiesner is a professor of Materials Science and Engineering at Cornell University and co-director of the MSKCC-Cornell Center for Translation of Cancer Nanomedicine. His research uses polymer science to generate multifunctional nanomaterials for applications including energy conversion and storage, clean water, and nanomedicine.

Molecular-Engineering Cancer Therapeutics


We often marvel at large feats of engineering, but in modern medicine, some of the most important molecular engineering achievements are so small, they can’t be seen by the naked eye.

One example comes from my research lab, where we develop molecularly engineered fluorescent silica  dots, called Cornell Dots or simply C-Dots, that have proven to be safe and effective in diagnosing cancer in humans. Clinical trials are now underway for a new version of C-Dots that carry cancer-killing medicine, which could revolutionize oncology.

At diameters smaller than the cutoff for kidney clearance, C-Dots can safely circulate through the bloodstream to seek and destroy cancerous tumors. Their ultra-small size excels at penetrating solid tumors, and they can harmlessly clear the body through the kidneys. This brilliant target-or-clear ability is unlike that of larger antibodies used in treatments that often accumulate in organs like the liver, causing unwanted side effects in patients.

Despite their ultrasmall size, C-Dots can carry 10-times as much medical payload as antibodies, and can be customized for a range of diagnostic and therapeutic applications. If the trials are successful, these silica dots will transform cancer treatment by providing a more effective, better-tolerated therapy for patients with a wide range of cancer types.

And in other clinical settings, similar ultrasmall tools are being used for tissue engineering, regenerative medicine, and as antimicrobial agents.

Engineers have always dreamed big to improve our quality of life, but innovation comes in all sizes. A tiny dot of silica may one day save your life, and give you more time to marvel at all the world has to offer – the large and the small.

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