Natural foods might just hold the key to curing cancer and various other diseases, and University of Missouri researcher Kattesh V. Katti is unlocking their potential through the power of green nanotechnology.
Katti, a radiology professor at MU and senior research scientist at the University of Missouri Research Reactor Center, has earned acclaim as “the Father of Green Nanotechnology” thanks to his discovery that natural plant chemicals could be used to create gold nanoparticles, which are ultrafine particles used in material science, medicine, optics and even electronics. The discovery was initially made using soybeans but expanded to include natural chemicals from cinnamon, cumin and tea leaves. The process, labeled as “green” because it produced no toxic agents, garnered Katti international recognition and introduced a novel, more eco-friendly approach to doing nanotechnology research.
Common plants such as herbs have long been known to help humans, Katti said, and that’s why they’ve been around the human food chain for centuries. “My idea is to connect what existed 5,000 years ago and embed that time-tested knowledge with some modern science through green nanotechnology,” he said.
Cathy Cutler, a research professor at the University of Missouri Research Reactor Center, said researchers in the past tended to design drugs with little knowledge of how they behaved naturally in the body. “But now we’re using compounds that humans have been exposed to for a long period of time, so we know a lot about how they behave and what their toxicity levels are,” Cutler said. “I think it’s a much better way to approach the system of drug design.”
Cutler, who has worked alongside Katti for several years, says he is both innovative and willing to take risks. “Aside from his research, he’s also very interested in training and education and tries to bring together diverse groups of people,” she said of Katti, who promotes science education among local high school students and among rural community colleges in India and in other countries.
As a child growing up in India, Katti said he underwent a “transformative” experience while living with his parents and three sisters in the same house as his maternal grandparents. Katti’s grandfather, a scholar in Sanskrit literature and history, became his greatest hero and a major source of inspiration for his work.
While most kids spent their afternoons playing cricket after school, Katti spent his proofreading hundreds of handwritten texts composed by his grandfather, a “true Gandhian” reader.
“Proofreading his books and articles gave me a tremendous opportunity to learn about society, culture, tolerance, truthfulness and, above all, moral values,” Katti said.
In addition to reading about Indian history and mythology, Katti was exposed to the writings of Mahatma Gandhi, whose teachings encouraged him to embrace a simple way of living and to contribute toward societal causes. These are the same values that drove his interests in contributing to the development of greener, cleaner technologies that could ultimately benefit the world and its environment.
Since his initial discovery, Katti, along with other researchers, found that radioactive gold nanoparticles reduced the size of tumors in animals with particular forms of cancers. Their research, which awaits human trials, is an example of the immense promise of nanotechnology, Katti said.
But there are still more hurdles to overcome. “The cancer therapy industry is a multibillion-dollar industry,” he said. “What fraction of that we are going to conquer is all based on how effective we will be in getting into humans trials, and how effective we will be in convincing the investor base to take us from where we are to the product line.”
Since his study kicked off in 2005 with a $3.1 million grant from the National Cancer Institute, Katti said he’s seen considerable growth in the field. “Then, I had about 10 or 12 researchers at MU working collaboratively in nano medicine,” he said. “Now, we have over 35 or 40 researchers just on campus.”
The field, interdisciplinary in nature, attracts a variety of researchers from all different backgrounds, including those in radiology, medicine, chemistry, physics, engineering and biology.
Though commercial applications of this research are still far from sight, Katti says the future of green nanotechnology looks bright. The green approach could not only help the environment but could also improve the way drugs are designed and developed in the field of medicine, he said. And by having the potential to connect agricultural economy with nanotechnology, this research could have reverberating and compounding effects on agriculture alongside the various fields that already employ nanotechnology.