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Striking back at breast cancer with innovation

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A breast cancer diagnosis hits women on multiple fronts.

“Just the shock of having breast cancer, then the removal of your breast and replacement and then the chemotherapy is just a terrible experience,” Judit Puskas said.  

Puskas is a distinguished professor in polymer science and member of Ohio State’s Sustainability Institute. She was recently an Innovator of the Year finalist in Ohio State’s Office of Research for her ongoing development of a breast implant coating that would deliver cancer drugs to women in a safer way.

It’s one of many innovative products Puskas has developed with her “Green polymer chemistry,” which not only helps people but is created in a way that’s sustainable for the environment. Those products include everything from drug-coated heart stents to safer rubber bullets to COVID-19 masks to her breast implant research, which she recently spoke to us about. 

Can you discuss the work you’re doing with breast cancer treatment and reconstruction?

I can provide a coating on a silicone breast implant with anti-cancer drugs in it. This releases the drug locally, where the tumor is, instead of the intravenous administering of chemotherapy, which floods the whole system. We have demonstrated that local delivery is much more effective.

(In the past) we submitted proposals, and reviewers said, ‘What you are proposing is not possible.’ Well, since then, we’ve demonstrated in testing it’s possible. And there’s a huge difference between intravenous administering and this local release.

What would the benefits of this be?

The benefit of local delivery of the drugs is less side effects: not losing your hair, not being sick, everything.

And it’s also the reconstruction; this is something important that is very often lost. Losing a breast for a woman is a psychological issue as well as a physical issue; it affects your identity. My goal is to help women with this traumatic situation.

How long does the coating on the implant work?

This is the subject of further research. All I can go on now is one of my polymers is on the Taxus drug-eluting stent. It’s an FDA-approved product that’s been implanted in over 10 million people just in the U.S., and the delivery is released slowly and continuously over a long period of time.

When a person has a blockage in an artery to their heart, they put stents in. But some people have a lot of cell proliferation. So even though they open the artery, it closes back up.

Taxus is a cancer drug that kills these cells so the artery doesn’t close back up.

It was my assumption you can incorporate this into the breast implant coating, and then it will be delivered in the breast.

There’s a huge difference between intravenous administering and this local release.

Judit Puskas, Distinguished Professor in Polymer Science, Ohio State's Sustainability Institute
What’s your vision for this?

I would like to see a company pick this up and put it into practical use or clinical practice. That’s what I want to see before I die.

Maybe it’s presumptuous, but I would like to draw a parallel with the COVID crisis. The background of the COVID-19 vaccine, the messenger Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccines — the whole concept of this messenger RNA vaccine was developed by a Hungarian woman, like myself. Often Katalin Kariko is neglected when discussing the technology. She started this research in Hungary in 1980 and submitted all types of proposals and everyone said, ‘Your idea is crazy.’

But after years of struggling, she finally got on at the University of Pennsylvania. They did biological testing for various diseases, and it wasn’t successful. Then comes COVID, and you see how it works.

Her idea wasn’t crazy.

You use ‘Green polymer chemistry’ in what you develop, so sustainability is a big part of what you do. Why is that?

You always have to think about sustainability with whatever you do. This is what I’m trying to teach to my students. I’ve struggled with this in my 40-year career: My ideas would get dismissed because I always considered sustainability and other aspects society wasn’t considering.

We still have problems, but I am hopeful it’s changing. It seems to be. Ohio State is really embracing this research, and I’m very glad I’m here now. It’s been incredible.