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Associate professor of radiology Zibo Li, PhD, received a $2.5 million (R01) grant from the NIH for a five-year collaborative study entitled, “The development of novel radiation-sensitizer based on ultra-small carbon dots.”

The Department congratulates associate professor of radiology Zibo Li, PhD for receiving an NIH Research Project $2.5M (R01) grant funding a study entitled, “The development of novel radiation-sensitizer based on ultra-small carbon dots.” This is a collaborative project involving University of Georgia associate professor of Chemistry Jin Xie, PhD and physician-scientists Andrew Wang and associate professor of radiology Yueh Lee, MD, PhD, at UNC-Chapel Hill. Over five years (7/15/2020 – 6/30/2025), Li and the collaborators aim to develop a new category of radiosensitizer using an ultra-small nanoparticle — metal intarcalated carbon dots — (M@Cdots) – to enhance radiotherapy (RT) in non-small cell lung cancer (NSCLC) patient treatment and outcomes. A range of radiation sensitizers used concurrently with radiation (RT) are viable alternatives to other methods (eg, lobectomy and lymph node dissection) for early-stage NSCLC patient treatment and management. Unfortunately, radiosensitizers used alone can cause severe systematic toxicities despite enhancing tumor-killing efficacy.

This project proposes to develop a new category of radiosensitizer using ultra-small, interacalated carbon dots (M@Cdots) to achieve enhanced cancer-killing effect with minimal systemic toxicity. The study hypothesizes affixing neurotensin (NTS) to the surface of M@Cdots improves tumor specificity. Added to efficient dose enhancement, minimal metal leakage, excellent tumor selectivity, sufficient intratumoral penetration and efficient renal clearance, this application of ultra-small nanoparticles produces a new category of radiation-sensitizer causing minimal systemic toxicities.

If successful, development of these radiosensitizers with reduced radiation doses will cause minimal systemic toxicities that lead to greatly improved outcomes when used concurrently with radiation therapy (RT). If successfully applied to RT for NSCLC, this methodology could be extended to studying treatment of other cancer types, such as head and neck, breast and prostate cancer.

The long-time Director of UNC’s Cyclotron and Radiochemistry Research Program, Li notes regarding this study: “Through this collaborative research, we may seamlessly integrate molecular imaging with targeted therapy, which would eventually lead to personalized medicine for lung cancer patient and beyond.”