The Nano-War on Cancer

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The Nano-War on Cancer

Scientists who work on cancer research have long struggled with a painful choice: If they make the treatment powerful enough to have a fighting chance at destroying cancer cells, it is likely to destroy the surrounding tissue. But if the treatment isn’t strong enough, the cancer cells will survive and possibly spread.

Now, nanotechnology is offering hope for new treatments that overcome this dilemma. Nanotech is the science of working at an incredibly small scale; a nanometer is less than one-ten-millionth of an inch. Evidence is mounting that cancer treatments based on nanoparticles can target cancer cells with a degree of precision that was unthinkable just a few years ago.

Researchers are making progress along several paths simultaneously. Let’s take a look at some of the most promising new developments.

At Yale University, researchers led by Professor W. Mark Saltzman have developed an innovative way to deliver cancer-fighting drugs to brain tumors by injecting therapeutic nanoparticles into the brain with a catheter, and then using pressure to guide them to the tumor.1

As reported in the journal Nature Materials,2 the nonviral nanoparticle developed at Yale is able to act like a virus to introduce a specific gene into diseased cells in order to kill or repair them.

This is a big improvement over conventional nonviral gene therapy agents, which often carry a positive electric charge that can kill healthy cells. It is also safer than viral gene therapy treatments, which can cause significant immune reactions.

Saltzman’s team overcame the problem of excessive charge by making the new nanoparticle more hydrophobic (water-repellant) and thus less likely to form chemical bonds with water molecules. Specifically, the team incorporated safe, water-insoluble units into the polymer that generates the nanoparticles. This reduces the positive charge and increases stability. The result is an efficient mechanism for gene delivery that is also extremely safe.

Meanwhile, at the University of Southampton, scientists have developed smart nanomaterials that can disrupt the blood supply to cancerous tumors.

The team of researchers, led by Physics Professor Antonios Kanaras, showed that a small dose of gold nanoparticles can activate or inhibit genes that are involved in angiogenesis — a complex process necessary for the supply of oxygen and nutrients to most types of cancer.

The team focused on endothelial cells, the cells that make up the interior of blood vessels and play a pivotal role in angiogenesis. As the researchers explained in the journal Nano Letters,3 they use a technique called laser irradiation...

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