Nanotechnology takes on cancer

New technology has been forward that claims to be able to directly target cancer cells

Nanotechnology has progressed a great deal in recent years and the US National Cancer Institute, (NCI), developed the Alliance for Nanotechnology in Cancer back in 2004. This was in order to bring together the various branches of research, which were being carried out in this field.  Interest in this type of research has grown since the formation of the alliance.

There are two areas in which nanotechnology can be applied to cancer. The first is the development of nanovectors. These are particles that can be filled with the drugs required and which then target the cancer. The second are nanosensor devices, which can detect the very early signs of cancer and determine risk. These two technologies, working together, can help to bring about early diagnosis of cancerous conditions and offer more effective treatments for sufferers.

The NCI currently has eight different centres in the US, known as Centers of Cancer Nanotechnology Excellence or CCNE for short. These are complimented by a number of smaller programmes and together they have recruited the top specialists in the field. Millions of dollars are being spent each year on research into nanotech prostate cancer treatments and nanotechnology in other types of cancer.

Nanotech prostate cancer research has shown excellent results in the initial stages. The nanoparticles have been coated with aptamers that help them find the tumour. Once the tumour is located they first bind to it before entering the cells and breaking up to release the medication. The particles are also coated to allow them to pass through the bloodstream without losing their contents prematurely. A chemical engineer, Robert Langer said, “extensive animal models show that this approach is both safe and efficacious”. Tests on the animal models have shown that one injection of such particles was enough to bring an end to the tumour.

This research has shown that there are challenges in encouraging the particles to reach the tumours. Research is also being carried out into the type of particles being used in nanotechnology. The shape and size of a particle will affect how it travels through the body and these factors can be manipulated in order to ensure that a safe passage to the desired area can be achieved. The body contains a number of biological barriers, such as vascular walls and membranes and these can affect how the particles travel. The teams researching this particular area of nanotechnology are hoping that it will eventually yield the optimal design of particle.

This type of research is being put into practice at the University of North Carolina. The team there is working on moulds, which allow the creation of particles that have the most suitable characteristics. The team is working on particle size and shape, which can be anything from a sphere to a disc, the composition of a particle, which may include solid matter, porous matter or organic matter and the compliance of a particle, which determines how flexible it can be. This team is also developing particles that can be loaded with a specific dosage of drugs for a particular treatment and are using natural particles as a model.