Nanotechnology for Cancer Treatment Projects Are Beginning to Pay Off in New Methods

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The science of nanotechnology was so named because it involves manipulating molecules that are measured in nanometers, or billionths of an inch. Since the width of a human hair ranges from 50,000 to 100,000 nanometers, it is clear how advantageous it is to be able to interact with cellular structures at this level. Research and development in nanotechnological applications in medicine, also referred to as nanomedicine, either are rapidly producing positive benefits or avenues of exploration and potentiality have been identified. In medicine, three areas stand out: Diagnostics, Treatment, and use in Clinical Trials.

Diagnostic Applications

Diagnosing cancer has always had to wait until there were visible changes to the body’s tissues. By that point, there will be thousands of cancer cells, in many cases already spreading through the body. The only way to get more information—how advanced the cancer is, whether it is benign or malignant, and how best to treat it—could only be done through biopsy. With the ability to identify the characteristics of a specific type of cancer and the related antibodies, these can be attached to nanoparticles that are visible on MRIs or CT scans. With this capability, doctors could have a better chance to identify a cancer and stage and see the actual cells.

Treatment Applications

In the past, doctors have had three basic methods of treating cancer: Chemotherapy, Radiation, and Surgery. All methodologies are limited in their success. Surgery itself actually can release tumor carrying cells to circulate in the bloodstream, leading to a later re-occurrence of the cancer in another site. Chemotherapy and radiation both can damage health tissue and cause new problems. By using nanoparticles as carriers to deliver drugs specifically to the site of a cancer, the particles can avoid injuring intervening tissue. Some of these particles carrying drugs are already on the market.

Clinical Trials

A number of clinical trials now are testing some nanotechnology for cancer applications. For example, Dr. Thomas Kipps, at the Center of Nanotechnology for Treatment, Understanding, and Monitoring of Cancer, has developed an adenovirus nanoparticle that delivers a molecule to stimulate the immune system. The treatment is being used on some patients with chronic lymphocytic leukemia [1].

The FDA has approved a nanosensor test for Coumadin. Using the same technology, scientists hope to adapt it for cancer biomarkers such as Prostate Specific Antigen (PSA) at far lower levels of PSA might lead to earlier diagnosis of prostate cancer [2].

Recent Developments

At the MIT-Harvard Center of Cancer Nanotechnology Excellence, a team led by Dr. Ralph Weissleder developed a paramagnetic nanoparticle along with a magnetic resonance sensor, which is able to detect “as few as two cancer cells in one micro liter of a bio-specimen in less than 15 minutes.” This was tested on mice with human tumors with near 100 percent accuracy [3].

The Siteman Center of Cancer Nanotechnology Excellence built a nanoparticle designed to target blood vessels surrounding tumors in an early stage and cut down the growth of precancerous skin cells in mice [4].


[1]. Leukemia and Lymphoma Society: Chronic Lymphocytic Leukemia

[2]. Nanomaterials for Cancer Diagnostics and Therapeutics

[3]. MIT-Harvard Center of Cancer Nanotechnology

[4]. The Siteman Center of Cancer Nanotechnology Excellence

Additional Resources

National Cancer Institute: Nanotechnology in Cancer

Nature Reviews: Cancer Nanotechnology


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