Florida Atlantic University's first student-run news source.


Florida Atlantic University's first student-run news source.


Florida Atlantic University's first student-run news source.


Funding a cure


Dr. Dipnarine Maharaj has a cure for cancer. Unfortunately, it’s only been proven to work in mice, and he doesn’t have the money to see if it works in humans.

Maharaj runs a facility in Boynton Beach called the South Florida Bone Marrow/Stem Cell Transplant Institute. There, he collects white blood cells from healthy people — most of whom are FAU students — and transfers the cells into cancer patients with solid-tumor cancers, such as breast cancer or lung cancer.

Once inside the patient, the blood cells — called granulocytes — are meant to surround and attack the cancer cells, causing them to pop. Although the procedure has been performed countless times on mice, Maharaj’s clinical study had been tested on only four human patients as of press time.
“We want to be able to complete the study to see if, like in the mice, the granulocytes will kill cancer,” Maharaj said.

The low number of patients isn’t due to a lack of interest, but rather a lack of funding. In medical studies, the patients do not pay for medications or other medical expenses.

Thus, Maharaj’s transplant institute has to pay about $137,000 per patient to cover all costs. The study is designed to accommodate 29 patients — a total of $4 million — which is money his institute doesn’t have.
“It’s not hard to have an abundance of [cell] donors, but it’s hard to have free-flowing money,” said Trevor Raborn, an FAU biology major and volunteer at the institute.

The institute was initially developed as an outpatient center for Bethesda Memorial Hospital. In 2001, the facility became independent, with Maharaj in charge.  Even though the independence gives Maharaj less red tape to cut through to conduct studies, it also makes it more difficult for him to gain financial backing since he isn’t associated with a hospital.
“It’s the only [institute] like this in Florida that I’m aware of,” Maharaj said.

Much of the funding received so far has come from private donors. In October, Maharaj and Raborn discovered a $2 million grant online from the National Institutes of Health that is specifically for independent research facilities working on cancer treatments.

Although they’ve started on the paperwork, the institute won’t see the funds from the grant for at least a year if it’s awarded to them.
“Writing grants is probably one of the most difficult processes, especially when it’s coming from the government,” said Raborn, who learned the basics of grant writing from the Grant Writing Workshop during FAU’s Recession Aggression Week. Raborn added that writing grants is about two-thirds filling out paperwork and one-third waiting for a response.

One major response the institute received so far, though, has come from the FAU student body through cell donations.

Chris Sizelove, a senior electrical engineering major, donated cells to a cancer patient earlier this year. To extract the white blood cells, donors are hooked up to an apheresis machine that allows blood to be drawn from one arm, run through the machine, and then deposited back into the other arm.
“It didn’t feel any different than donating blood at a regular location,” Sizelove said of his three-hour donation process.

Each cancer patient needs blood cells from four different donors in order to complete the treatment. Since the study calls for 29 patients, the institute needs cells from at least 116 different people in order to complete the trial.
“[The treatment] is really very novel,” Maharaj said. “Most studies focus on one mechanism of cancer. I’m focused on the fact that  it works.”

Although there are many students in the institute’s donor registry, not all of them will be able to donate cells. The donor and the patient must have certain blood components in common while having other components that are uncommon between them.

Starting this month, Maharaj and his staff will be going through the donor registry looking for matches, as the institute has raised enough money to take on a fifth patient. Even though there’s still 24 to go after this patient, it’s still one more person who may one day become cancer-free.
“I’m not so interested in the mechanisms [of cancer] — I’m interested in helping people,” Maharaj said.

To learn more about the cell donation process and how the treatment works, click here.


How to donate:

If you would like to make a blood cell or monetary donation, click here.


How FAU helps

Although Dr. Dipnarine Maharaj is a professor at the University of Miami, his cancer research has an even closer tie to FAU.
“The majority of the [cell donation] participants in the study are FAU students,” said Trevor Raborn, a biology major who volunteers for Maharaj.

Maharaj’s research gained interest from many FAU student clubs, like the pre-dentistry and pre-professional clubs, and is also endorsed by Student Government (SG). In October, Raborn approached SG’s Boca House of Representatives about the cancer treatment, and SG voted to endorse the research.
“Since Student Government represents the student voice, it creates a bond that says FAU students like this idea,” Raborn said. “It helps to say you’re not only helping cancer research, but your school of students support this.” 

Cell donors need to be between the ages of 18 and 35, making college students ideal candidates for the process. FAU’s main campus in Boca is only 16 miles — or about 20 minutes, according to Google Maps — from the Boynton-based institute, which may be why students from this university outnumber other universities.
“FAU’s the biggest [academic] institution in this area,” Maharaj said.



This cancer treatment involves taking white blood cells from healthy individuals and infusing them into cancer patients. In order to donate white blood cells, a potential donor needs to match and mismatch a patient based on several criteria. 

The first round of blood tests includes determining the donor’s blood type and body chemistry and checking for infectious diseases, according to Trevor Raborn, a volunteer at the South Florida Bone Marrow/Stem Cell Transplant Institute. If the donor matches the patient’s blood type and is found to be healthy, a second round of blood tests is performed.

The second round of blood tests are meant to examine the donor’s white blood cells and identify the donor’s antigens on the cells. The study looks at 10 different antigens and hopes that all 10 are mismatched between the donor and the patient. This mismatch would occur on chromosome 6.

As an incentive, donors are paid $10 to have the first test performed and an additional $15 if they get the second test.

If the person is a suitable candidate, then he or she can donate blood cells to the patient. The donation process is two to three hours long and will earn the donor an additional $125. To learn more about the cell donation process, click here.


From mice to man

For more than 10 years, pathology professor Dr. Zheng Cui from Wake Forest University in North Carolina studied cancer in mice. Over time, Cui discovered that some of the mice would not develop cancer, even if he tried to induce it in them. Instead of focusing on the mice that contracted cancer, Cui focused on the mice that seemed to be immune to cancer.

Cui transferred blood from the cancer-free mice into the mice with cancer and noticed that the mice with cancer would recover — even those in the late stages of the disease. After removing blood components to isolate the cancer-resistant portion, Cui determined that it was a type of white blood cell — called a granulocyte — that prevented the cancer. “Granulocytes are hypersensitive to cancer cells,” said Dr. Dipnarine Maharaj, a longtime colleague of Cui’s.

Maharaj is currently running a clinical study in Boynton Beach using Cui’s hypothesis on human patients. To learn more about using white blood cells as a treatment for cancer, click here.

[Sources: Dr. Dipnarine Maharaj, Trevor Raborn]

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    Stephen NortonJun 30, 2014 at 12:42 am

    Great article, the facilities that Maharaj runs at the South Florida Bone Marrow/Stem Cell Transplant Institute has a tremendous impact.