Safer breast implant with healing properties among top winners in cancer-fighting innovations international competition


THE DEVELOPMENT OF a safer breast implant that could actually help detect and destroy cancer cells is the focus of research at The University of Akron that won international recognition today as one of the most exciting and innovative ideas in the battle against breast cancer.

Launched last fall, the “GE Healthymagination Cancer Challenge” generated more than 500 ideas from 40 countries and more than 200 academic institutions and researchers.

The University of Akron research team, led by materials scientist Judit E. Puskas, Ph.D, in the College of Engineering, was among five innovation award winners selected to receive $100,000 in “seed money” to further develop their ideas. The other award winners include research teams at the:

  • Vanderbilt-Ingram Cancer Center (Nashville);
  • Moffitt Cancer Center (Tampa); and
  • a partnership between the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center (Seattle) and the Uganda Cancer Institute (Kampala).

“To be included among the most prestigious cancer researchers in the world is truly humbling,” says Puskas, professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering.  “It is never easy to bring a discovery from the bench to the bedside. It takes years of work and millions in funding support. This award and recognition will help speed the development and manufacturer of a product that can help millions of women recover from breast cancer.”

Focus polymer materials in medical devices

Since joining the faculty at The University of Akron in 2004, Dr. Puskas has helped develop polymer-based materials and coatings for use in medical devices and other industries.

She received funding from the National Cancer Institute/National Institutes of Health in 2010 to further develop the technology to create a safer breast implant, one that is less likely to leak silicone. This polymer material also reduces the risk of inflammation in the tissue surrounding the implant, which often leads to painful tissue contraction and rupture of the implant.

The Illinois-based Austin Venture Partners, LLC, owns the patent to the polymer developed by Dr. Puskas. She has been collaborating for seven years with Steven P. Schmidt, Ph.D, Summa Health System in Akron, in the clinical application for the invention. Dr. Puskas has led her team at The University of Akron from a materials development perspective while Dr. Schmidt has led his team at Summa from a biocompatibility and medical application perspective. “This has been a winning combination of talents,” said Dr. Schmidt.

Coating targets cancer cells

Even more intriguing to cancer researchers is the possibility of embedding drugs in the polymer coating to fight infection and inflammation, and target and destroy cancer cells. Dr. Puskas and her team at The University of Akron developed a process by which specific drugs can be synthesized and embedded in the polymer material, and released in the body after a mastectomy or reconstruction.

For example, it would be possible to coat a tissue-expander or a breast implant with a pharmaceutical agent that can detect the presence of and selectively destroy stray cancer cells.  The University of Akron holds the patent application for this process. “The ability to locally target drug delivery has the potential to dramatically improve the course of treatment for breast cancer patients,” said Dr. Schmidt.

In announcing the award, Beth Comstock, GE senior vice president and chief marketing officer, said, “We launched the Challenge as a call to action for oncology researchers and healthcare innovators around the world to accelerate innovation and help stop this deadly disease. The Challenge has showed us that there are a remarkable number of breakthrough ideas out there that will help doctors detect breast cancer faster and give more accurate diagnosis with targeted and effective treatment.”

The UA research was among the winners selected for the Challenge Award by an independent judging panel that included venture capital partners, GE executives, and several leading healthcare luminaries, including:

  • former U.S. FDA Commissioner and National Cancer Institute Director, Dr. Andrew Von Eschenbach;
  • Professor of Surgery and Director of the University of Michigan Breast Care Center, Dr. Lisa Newman; and
  • cancer medicine specialist and Imperial College’s professor of cancer medicine, Dr. Justin Stebbing.

Launched on Sept. 15, 2011, the “GE healthymagination Challenge” is a $100 million open innovation challenge that seeks to identify and bring to market ideas that advance breast cancer diagnostics. Additional strategic commercial partnership announcements from the Challenge will be made later in 2012.

Five challenge winners

The five innovation Challenge award winners will each receive $100,000 to develop their ideas:

MyCancerGenome, Personalized Approach to Triple Negative Breast Cancer: MyCancerGenome is a freely available online personalized cancer medicine resource and decision-making tool for physicians, patients, caregivers and researchers. It provides up-to- date information on what mutations make breast cancer grow and related treatment implications, including available genome- directed clinical trials for triple negative breast cancer.

Creating Safer & Stronger Breast Implants with Cancer-fighting and Healing Properties: The University of Akron is developing new materials for breast reconstruction to transform tissue expanders and implants into cancer-fighting and healing devices. Using coatings embedded with pharmaceutical agents, the new device is expected to help fight infection, reduce inflammation, and possibly even target and destroy stray cancer cells.

Identifying a Predisposition to Cancer Spread: Moffitt Cancer Center is working to understand the genetic "modifier" genes and their role in predisposition to the spread of cancer to other parts of the body following cancer onset. This research could form the basis of diagnostic testing for genes that place a patient at disproportionate risk for cancer spread and guide aggressiveness of treatment.

Saving Lives in Developing Countries: For developing countries such as Uganda, breast ultrasound holds promise in identifying cancers in young women with palpable lumps. Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center and Uganda Cancer Institute (UCI) in Kampala are establishing a breast cancer screening program where women will receive education about breast cancer and those with symptoms will be offered clinical breast exam and breast ultrasound. Women with suspicious lumps will be referred to the UCI for tissue sampling and, if malignancy is diagnosed, treatment.

Moving to Personalized Therapy for Triple Negative Breast Cancer: Researchers at Vanderbilt-Ingram Cancer Center have demonstrated that gene expression analysis reveals at least six distinct disease subtypes for triple negative breast cancer that likely respond differently to chemotherapy. Using this discovery, the Center is designing clinical trials with targeted therapy for select subtypes which will soon be offered to patients.

GE's Healthymagination website.

Media contact: Eileen Korey, 330-972-8589 or 

May 2012 update: Next steps discussed

GE Healthymaginations meetingJudit Puskas met with the leadership of GE Healthymagination in May to discuss the next steps in the innovative implant. From left are Robert Dunn, oncology strategy leader, GE; Carrie Eglinton Manner, CEO of Clarient, GE Healthcare; Jo Dangel, director of development, The University of Akron; Sam Ponticelli, chairman and CEO, Austin Chemical Company; Pascale Witz, president and CEO Medical Diagnostics, GE Healthcare; Puskas, who is professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering at UA; and Michael Barber, VP Molecular Imaging, Healthcare Systems, GE Healthcare.




See also:

Triangle Young researcher fills big role on breast implant research team
High school student John Freiss was an integral member of Judit Puskas’ breast implant research team

Triangle GE's Healthymagination site

News media coverage

Triangle Akron Beacon Journal: "University of Akron lands GE grant to support breast implant project"

Triangle Cleveland Plain Dealer: "University of Akron research team gets national GE innovation award for breast cancer research"

Triangle NPR (WKSU-FM): "Akron researcher earns GE innovation award"

Triangle ABC Cleveland (WEWS Channel 5): "New hope for breast cancer patients who opt for reconstruction thanks to Akron researcher"

Triangle NBC Cleveland (WKYC Channel 3): "University of Akron among winners in cancer fighting competition"

Puskas dedicates award to grandmother

Dr. Puskas:

"I’d like to dedicate this award to my late grandmother, Maria Kis.

"I was 18 when my single mother died. My grandmother, barely surviving on her widower’s pension, went back to work at age 66 and supported me through university. She did 12-hour shifts with ulcerated legs and in constant pain she ignored. Just after my graduation she was hit by cervical cancer that was not treated properly.  

"Witnessing her suffering and passing was the single most painful experience of my life. I would not be here without her.

"I will use part of the award to set up a scholarship in her memory."