The University of Massachusetts Amherst
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Forbes Publishes in Nature Reviews

Associate Professor Neil Forbes of the Chemical Engineering Department has published a review entitled “Engineering the perfect (bacterial) cancer therapy” in the November 2010 (Vol 10 No 11) edition of the prestigious publication, Nature Reviews (Cancer). As Dr. Forbes summarizes such a “perfect therapy” in his article: “It would be tiny programmable 'robot factories' that specifically target tumors, are selectively cytotoxic to cancer cells, are self-propelled, are responsive to external signals, can sense the local environment, and are externally detectable.”

How influential is Nature Reviews? “This journal is one of the top-10 impact publications of all,” says Forbes. “It’s equivalent to Science and Nature. This publication tries to be right at the zeitgeist. And the editors asked me to write this review, which is quite flattering.”

Nature Reviews, begun in 2000, is a publication of the Nature Publishing Group, a spinoff from Nature, which was founded in 1869. The group publishes journals, online databases, and services across the life, physical, chemical, and applied sciences, and clinical medicine.

Forbes received a Ph.D. in Chemical Engineering from the University of California, Berkeley, and was a postdoctoral fellow in Radiation Oncology at Harvard Medical School. His main research interest is the development of therapeutic and diagnostic techniques for the treatment of cancer, and he is the only engineer in the country using molecular techniques to create targeted bacterial therapies.

As Forbes’ Nature Reviews abstract notes, “Bacterial therapies possess many unique mechanisms for treating cancer that are unachievable with standard methods. Bacteria can specifically target tumors, actively penetrate tissue, are easily detected, and can controllably induce cytotoxicity. Over the past decade, Salmonella, Clostridium, and other genera have been shown to control tumor growth and promote survival in animal models. In this Innovation article I propose that synthetic biology techniques can be used to solve many of the key challenges that are associated with bacterial therapies, such as toxicity, stability, and efficiency, and can be used to tune their beneficial features, allowing the engineering of 'perfect' cancer therapies.”

In the process of researching his article, Forbes did a comprehensive search of every published journal article on bacteria as a treatment for cancer. That meant synthesizing more than 200 research papers about bacterial approaches for cancer therapies, encompassing an amazing variety of approaches dating back to the 19th century.

“And what I found is that various approaches can by cooperative and synergistic,” says Forbes. “So you could have a therapy with multiple bacteria, engineered to act like robots, working multiple ways to produce different therapeutic effects. Instead of saying ‘I’ve got one bacteria, and I’m going to make something that’s going to treat cancer,’ I’d like to create a platform for a whole lot of people working on different bacterial approaches to treat cancer. We can do it together and use engineering techniques to get it done.”

Forbes is hoping his article can attract chemical engineers and other scientists from the new synthetic biology discipline or other fields and bring them into this arena. How would that help his research? Practically speaking, it won’t. In fact, moving these bacterial studies toward the mainstream of cancer therapeutics might actually create more competitors for him.

“But I do believe that this is really one of the best ways to do it, and I’d like us collectively to push the envelope,” notes Forbes. “The more horsepower, intelligence, money, time, talent that can be put on it, the better we’re going to forward this research and get it to work on cancer. It’s because I believe in it.” (November 2010)