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Massey researcher working to develop novel nanotherapeutics for lung cancer

Sandro da Rocha, Ph.D.

Scientist Sandro da Rocha, Ph.D., hopes to eventually develop novel drugs that can be used as a primary or adjuvant therapy for multiple forms of lung cancer. A member of VCU Massey Cancer Center’s Developmental Therapeutics research program since March 2016, da Rocha has centered his research on designing nanotherapeutics that can target cancer cells with improved efficacy and decreased toxicity.

Nanotechnology involves controlling matter at the molecular scale to create devices with novel chemical, physical and/or biological properties. This field of study offers the potential for scientists to develop new opportunities in the treatment of cancer.

“I would love to see our research contributing to nanotherapeutic technologies that translate into the clinic for the treatment of lung cancer. There’s nothing like that currently available,” said da Rocha, who is also the director of pharmaceutical engineering and an associate professor in the Department of Pharmaceutics at the VCU School of Pharmacy.

da Rocha believes that advancements in nanotherapeutics along with their formulation in oral inhalation devices could lead to the development of chemotherapies that can target lung cancer cells more directly. This, in turn, could potentially help minimize damage to healthy tissue and increase overall survival.

The passion da Rocha possesses for his research is born from personal experience, where he witnessed his father’s own struggle with and eventual passing from lung cancer. With an original career focus in pulmonary drug delivery, da Rocha adapted his research concentration to include the discovery of effective applications for nanomedicine as treatment for lung cancer.

“I felt like there was something I could contribute toward people suffering from such a prevalent and deadly disease,” da Rocha said.

Lung cancer is the second most common cancer among both men and women. The American Cancer Society reports that 14 percent of all new cancers are lung cancers, and estimates 224,390 new diagnoses and more than 158,000 lung cancer deaths in the United States for 2016.

da Rocha seeks to bridge the gap between highly innovative laboratory research and clinical care as he pursues his nanotherapeutic goals. This is an initiative that requires a lot of collaboration – something he said has been readily accessible in his first year as a Massey research member.

“Collaboration is key to the development of translational research, which leads to better treatment strategies,” da Rocha said. “One of the most exciting things about cancer research is that there is room for everybody. I think it’s a necessity to have people from different backgrounds come together to tackle this problem in a multidisciplinary way.”

Through collaboration, he hopes to extend his research efforts to develop better treatments for osteosarcoma as well.

Born in the southern-most state of Brazil, da Rocha earned a Master of Science degree in chemical engineering from the Federal University of Santa Catarina. He later studied at the Danish Technological Institute in Denmark before moving to Austin, TX, where he earned his Ph.D. from The University of Texas at Austin. There, he also completed a postdoctoral fellowship in chemistry and biochemistry. Moving to Detroit in 2002, he became an assistant and then associate professor in the Department of Chemical Engineering at Wayne State University, where he eventually became the director of the Nanoengineering Program.

da Rocha’s research has been published in 60 peer-reviewed journal publications, including Biomaterials, the Journal of Physical Chemistry and Molecular Pharmaceutics.

In addition, he was nominated to participate in the VCU Leadership Development Program, recognized as a VCU Recruiting Inclusive Champion and named a visiting professor at the University of Messina in Italy.

da Rocha is married with three daughters, with whom he enjoys spending time soaking up the natural beauty of Richmond’s parks and rivers.

Written by: Blake Belden

Posted on: February 14, 2017