Microfighters: Nanotechnology Takes on Cancer

image showing nanotechnology

Cancer is a devastating disease, with approximately 40% of men and women facing a diagnosis of cancer at some point during their lifetimes (based on 2010-2012 data).  In addition, cancer is a costly disease, with national expenditures in the United States reaching nearly $125 billion in 2010 and a projected $156 billion in 2020.

Although cancer is a continuous area of research, the most common therapies are currently limited to surgery, radiation, and chemotherapy.  All three risk damage to normal tissues, incomplete eradication of tumors and even long term effects.  The increasing use of nanotechnology is one of the most exciting and recent developments in the treatment of cancer, with a possibility of destroying tumors with minimal impact on surrounding organs, and discovering and eliminating cancer cells before they have the opportunity to become malignant tumors.  Nanotechnology offers the potential for targeted chemotherapies delivered selectively to cancerous cells, enhancing efficacy of radiation-based and other current treatment modalities.  Targeted therapy presents a decreased risk to the patient coupled with an increased probability of survival, the best of both worlds.

Multiple applications of nanotechnology for the detection and treatment of cancer are currently in development, with one of them using heat to destroy tumors.  AuroShells, designed by Nanospectra, utilize nanoparticles that absorb infrared light from lasers and convert the light into heat to thermally destroy cancer tissue while sparing surrounding healthy tissue.

Nanodiamonds or diamond nanoparticles are diamonds with a size below 1 micrometer, and are a novel entry into the therapeutic arena of cancer treatment.  Researchers from the National University of Singapore and University of California, Los Angeles bound a common leukemia drug with nanodiamonds, increasing the delivery and retention of the drug to drug-resistant leukemia cells.  The nanodiamond approach addresses one of the major challenges in the treatment of leukemia: cancer cells expel drugs out of the body before they can do their job, particularly after they are exposed to chemotherapeutics.

“The use of nanodiamonds offers a promising combination of biocompatibility and the capability to enhance therapeutic efficacy.”– Dr Edward Chow, Cancer Science Institute of Singapore 

The unique properties of nanoparticles have also been incorporated into therapeutics.  Nanocells can be as small as 200 nanometers in diameter, allowing them to travel freely throughout the body and into tumors.  The outer shell can be designed to gradually decay, revealing an inner cell of cancer fighting drugs, which then soak into the tumor over the course of approximately two weeks.

Pancreatic cancer mortality rates have shown no significant sign of shrinking over the last few decades, making it one of the most deadly cancers today.  UCLA researchers have been attempting to develop a method of fighting pancreatic cancer through dual delivery systems that deploy nanotechnology in two stages. One nanoparticle strips material from the outside of the cancer cells, allowing the entry of the second nanoparticle carrying the chemotherapeutic to the affected area. Testing on lab mice showed this method to be extremely effective, greater than other methods tested.

Impressive new advances are occurring at a breakneck pace in medical nanotechnology, allowing detection and treatment of cancer earlier, with lessened side effects.  With the advent of the advances in nanotechnology targeting cancer, the question becomes:  will nanotech be instrumental in the cure for cancer?