Chemistry's Tim Kowalczyk Receives $300,000 NSF Grant to Research Photodynamic Cancer Therapy Agents

Western Today Staff
Tuesday, July 25, 2017 - 9:27am

Western Washington University Assistant Professor of Chemistry Tim Kowalczyk has been awarded a three-year, $300,000 grant from the National Science Foundation to research predictive modeling of photoactive materials.

Kowalczyk’s group is creating computer simulations that have the capability to predict how much energy the photoactive molecules will absorb when exposed to the solar spectrum. With this new technology, these calculations will take a fraction of a second and boost the efficacy of photodynamic therapies, a type of cancer treatment that is based on using light rather than injecting poisons into a patient’s body, as they do in chemotherapy.

“Ten years ago I would have said this is very early stage research, but the ability for this kind of method to reach folks in their everyday life is accelerating,” said Kowalczyk.

In photodynamic therapy, a patient would either ingest or apply a medicated patch with a type of dye molecule that absorbs a part of the light spectrum, such as a red absorber. The molecules do not directly attach to the cancer cell, but localize in the vicinity of the tumor. The doctor then focuses a red laser on the cancer, which excites the photosensitizers in the vicinity of the cancer cell; while the molecules may be coursing throughout the patient’s bloodstream, they will only be activated where the laser is focused.

“Once activated, the photosensitizers kicks the oxygen into a special state that makes it reactive. As the cell starts to realize it is under attack, it undergoes programed cell death,” said Kowalczyk.

Kowalczyk’s lifelong interest in math and symbols led him down the road of physical chemistry, where the laws of physics are applied to better understand chemical phenomena.  

Students collaborating on this research include undergraduates Justin Doyle (Chemistry/Danville, California), Matthew Paige (Mathematics and English/Kirkland), Rebecca Szabo (Physics and Chemistry/Covington) and Emily McCracken (Chemistry/Bellingham) as well as recently graduated master’s degree student Keenan Komoto (Chemistry/Kent).

Recent bachelor’s degree students Zoe Pollard (Mathematics/Oak Harbor) and Khoa Le (Chemistry/Bellingham) also contributed to this research. Komoto, Pollard and Le were instrumental in the preliminary work leading up to the proposal. According to Kowalczyk, the proof-of-concept for this grant would not have been achieved without their work.  

For more information about this project, contact Tim Kowalczyk at (360) 650-6622 or