Engineering background assists Mehta in treating cancer patients

Ankit Mehta’s career path took him to a fork in the road. Should he take the engineering route, or medicine? He forged a new trail and decided to do both.

A new member of the University of Illinois Cancer Center, Mehta, MD, melds his expertise in engineering, technology and medicine to treat patients with complex spinal conditions, especially those with spinal tumors and spinal deformity. The assistant professor of clinical neurosurgery and director of spinal oncology at the University of Illinois College of Medicine specializes in conducting research on how nanoparticle technology can be used to treat cancer.

“Current treatment methods for most cancers involve surgical biopsy or resection, followed by radiation or chemotherapy,” said Mehta, who has been at UIC for the past six years. “While chemotherapy is effective for some tumors, it is limited by poor specificity and is often unable to cross the blood-spine barrier. Many chemotherapeutic agents further exhibit significant systemic toxicity and a narrow therapeutic index.

“Nanoparticles have been demonstrated to be a potential solution for these challenges, and are able to enhance chemotherapy efficacy by increasing drug concentration at the target site.”

A rare disease, spinal cancer affects about 24,000 Americans each year. It forms when abnormal cells grow out of control in the spinal cord, the long, fragile tube-like structure that begins at the end of the brain stem and continues down nearly to the bottom of the spine that allows for movement, feeling sensations and control of bodily functions. Symptoms of the disease include pain, muscle weakness, difficulty walking, and paralysis.

Spinal cord tumors represent a significant challenge in oncology, accounting for 2% to 10% of all central nervous system (CNS) tumors, Mehta said. Intramedullary spinal cord tumors (IMSCTs) account for 8% to 10% of all spinal cord tumors, with astrocytoma being the most common among adolescents and children. While most IMSCTs are benign, 7% to 30% of astrocytomas are considered malignant, with a mean survival of 15.5 months.

There are significant challenges when treating IMSCTs, Mehta said. The movement of the cancerous cells are problematic in that there is not a clear plane of resection; gross-total resection of the lesions is rarely possible without risking injury to spinal motor and sensory pathways. With the high-grade lesions commonly found in adolescents, radiation is often not recommended due to the toxicity of the developing central nervous system.

“Chemotherapy is traditionally a better option, but it is limited by systemic toxicity, poor drug delivery, and limited tumor parenchyma penetration,” Mehta said. “Given the limits of chemotherapy, novel therapeutic approaches are needed for IMSCT treatment. For the first time, we found that chemotherapy drugs can be delivered locally to the site of the spinal cord tumor using magnetic nanoparticles guided by a magnetic field, bypassing the blood-spine barrier.”

A native of suburban Hoffman Estates, Mehta received a Bachelor of Science degree in chemical engineering with a specialization in biomedical engineering from the Illinois Institute of Technology in Chicago. He received a medical degree from Boston’s Harvard Medical School and Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the Health Sciences and Technology pathway, and completed an internship in general surgery at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, as well as a residency in neurological surgery at Duke University in Durham, N.C. During his residency training, Mehta completed an enfolded stereotactic radio surgery fellowship. Upon the conclusion of his residency, Mehta finished a complex spine and spinal oncology fellowship at The Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore.

Mehta was named a Fellow of the American Association of Neurological Surgeons (FAANS) in 2019, and was presented with the Rising Star Award from the University of Illinois College of Medicine that same year. He received the Chancellor’s Translational Research Initiative Award from UIC’s Office of Technology Management in 2020, and a UIC College of Engineering Seed Funding Award in 2015-2016. He has also received a research grant from the National Institutes of Health, and was named the journal Spine’s Young Investigator of the Year Award. He has published more than 45 peer-reviewed articles, four book chapters, and has presented his research at national conferences.

Every day brings something new for Mehta, and he enjoys the variety. One day he may be performing surgery on human patients, and the next he may do the same on animal models. He also mentors about 20 students in his laboratory. He is looking forward to sharing his knowledge and experiences with others at the UI Cancer Center.

“A lot of important scientific discoveries come through collaboration, and there’s a wealth of knowledge at the University of Illinois Cancer Center, which I’m excited to be a part of,” he said.