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Innovators | Medicine

Developing tiny nanoparticles to target cancer

Omid Farokhzad, researcher at Harvard Medical School

Omid Farokhzad, a researcher at Harvard Medical School and Brigham and Women’s Hospital.

Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff

Omid Farokhzad, a researcher at Harvard Medical School and Brigham and Women’s Hospital.

Big thinker Omid Farokhzad is thinking small.

How small? “The typical nanotechnology we develop is on the order of 100 nanometers in size, enough to put a thousand side by side on the cross-section of a hair,” said Farokhzad, 44, a biotech pioneer who believes he has found the silver bullet in medicine — targeted nanoparticles that encapsulate drugs and deliver their precious cargo directly to diseased cells. His mentor, famed MIT scientist Robert Langer, counts Farokhzad among a new breed of visionary physician-scientists who translate academic innovations into vital biotech start-ups.

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Farokhzad, a researcher at Harvard Medical School and Brigham and Women’s Hospital, holds 65 patents that helped create three companies developing breakthrough therapeutics, including BIND Bioscience, Selecta Biosciences, and Blend Therapeutics. These start-ups have raised more than $200 million and employ 100 scientists, bringing nanoparticle vaccines and targeted anticancer drugs to the market.

A search through medical databases under the term “nanoparticle,” will produce just two papers published in 1980. In 2011, there were over 14,000. Farokhzad is fond of pointing to this exponential growth as an example of the depth of data being produced. “The pace of discovery for nanoparticles is breathtaking and will have a transformative impact on the quality of care in health care,” he said.

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