In the not-too-distant future, a new breast implant created in Akron could cure cancer.

Judit Puskas, a materials scientist at the University of Akron College of Engineering, is getting international attention for her efforts to develop a safer breast implant that can help detect and then destroy cancer cells.

The work by Puskas and her research partners at the university and Summa Health System is among five projects across the globe awarded $100,000 in seed money on Tuesday through the GE healthymagination Cancer Challenge.

The competition drew in excess of 500 proposals from more than 200 universities and researchers in more than 40 countries.

The awards are part of a $100 million commitment by GE to support research through the challenge project.

Puskas said the award “is like winning the lottery.”

“This is a big shot in the arm,” she said.

The recognition should help secure additional funding and interest within the medical industry, said Steven P. Schmidt, co-investigator on the project and Summa's vice president of clinical research and innovation.

“The validation of this work by GE is very important to us,” he said.

GE will work with the winners to provide mentoring, access to GE researchers and industry leaders and potential expanded partnerships and funding, Alan Gilbert, director of global government and nongovernmental organization strategy for GE healthymagination, said in an email interview.

The company “committed to shining a spotlight on early stage work from our innovation challenges so that this work continues and hopefully accelerates in new ways through our awards and future partnerships,” he said.

For a dozen years, Puskas has been working to develop a breast implant made from an impermeable polymer, rather than the typical silicone material.

Silicone can tear easily and is permeable, meaning the liquid or gel inside the implants can leak, Puskas said.

She estimates as many as 50,000 of the 400,00 women who get breast implants annually require additional surgeries to repair, replace or remove the implants. About a quarter of the patients who choose to get breast implants annually are cancer patients.

“A lot of women are affected,” she said. “I really feel compelled to come up with a better material than silicone, or at least an alternative material.”

In addition, the polymer material can have embedded medications to fight infection, reduce inflammation, ease pain and detect and destroy cancer, she said.

The “magic bullet drugs” under development could provide targeted treatment at the cancer site, rather than force patients to undergo traditional chemotherapy treatments that can cause unwanted side effects, Puskas explained.

“This is the dream, that you can replace chemotherapy,” she said. “This is a local delivery of the drug, rather than flooding the system.”

The same drug-emitted polymer material also could be used for tissue expanders that some women require after mastectomies to accommodate their implants, she said.

Summa researchers have been assisting with animal testing for the polymer material and will continue to help develop the drug-delivery technology, Schmidt said.

The material for the project is related to another polymer biomaterial developed at the University of Akron that is used for drug-eluding stents to help prevent arteries from getting clogged again with plaque.

Austin Chemical Co. in Illinois acquired the patent last year for the new polymer material. The University of Akron has a patent pending for the process to synthesize and implant drugs in the polymer material.

The project has received past support from the National Institutes of Health, Austin Chemical, the Austen BioInnovation Institute in Akron, the National Science Foundation and other sources.

Puskas estimates at least $2 million is needed to make a prototype that uses the polymer material to release a cancer-fighting drug that has already been approved. More money and additional research will be needed to develop implants that use new drugs under development.

If all goes as planned, a prototype could be completed within a year or two.

Ideally, she said, the material eventually will be manufactured in the region.

The winners for the GE award were selected by a panel of venture capital partners, GE executives and leaders in cancer research and the health-care field.

Other winners included research teams from Vanderbilt-Ingram Cancer Center in Nashville, the Moffitt Cancer Center in Tampa, a free online cancer resource (www.mycancergenome.com) and a partnership between the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center and Uganda Cancer Institute.

Cheryl Powell can be reached at 330-996-3902 or chpowell@thebeaconjournal.com. Follow Powell on Twitter at twitter.com/abjcherylpowell.