New Cancer Weapons: Magnets, Lasers, 'Nanoballoons'

Wednesday, 16 Apr 2014 09:38 AM

By Nick Tate

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The brave new world of cancer treatment is beginning to sound a lot like science fiction. Medical scientists are rapidly developing new weapons against cancer that use lasers, magnets, and "nanoballoons" — tiny particles that cause tumor cells to self-destruct — in ways that were barely imaginable even a decade ago.

In perhaps the most exciting development, researchers with the University of Buffalo have perfected a new technique for precisely delivering chemotherapeutic drugs by encapsulating them in small balloon-like spheres that — when struck by a harmless laser — burst open and deliver high doses of medicine to kill tumors.
 
Jonathan Lovell, a UB assistant professor of biomedical engineering who helped create the pioneering anti-cancer technology, tells Newsmax Health new developments in nanotechnology are the wave of the future in the war on cancer.
 
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"I think we're going to be seeing a lot more interest in 'smart' approaches to drug delivery in the next few years and beyond," he says. "Nanotechnology enables this type of approach since it wouldn't have been possible at all without having the unique nanoballoons that make it all work at the nanoscale."
 
Lovell says the UB nanoballoons, described this month in the journal Nature Communications, take an entirely different approach to destroying tumor cells and could vastly improve conventional cancer treatment, reduce chemotherapy side effects, and add to scientific understanding of the disease.
 
"Think of it this way," he says. "The nanoballoon is a submarine. The drug is the cargo. We use a laser to open the submarine door which releases the drug. We close the door by turning the laser off. We then retrieve the submarine as it circulates through the bloodstream."
 
Lovell notes chemo drugs can destroy cancer cells, but are not always efficient at doing the job. The medicines are toxic and interact with blood, bone marrow, and other healthy bodily systems, diluting their cancer-killing capabilities and causing unwanted side effects. But by encapsulating the drugs in nanoballoons — toughly 1,000 times thinner than a human hair — they can be efficiently delivered to the site of a tumor, reducing the drugs' interaction with healthy body tissues.
 
"Why … nanoballoons open in response to an otherwise harmless red laser is still a bit of a mystery to us, but we have definitely unearthed a new and unique phenomenon," Lovell says. "Its potential for improving how we treat cancer is immense."
 
The tiny spheres are made of porphyrin — an organic compound — and phospholipid, a fat similar to vegetable oil. Like conventional chemotherapy drugs, they would be delivered to patients intravenously and travel through the bloodstream to reach tumor sites.
 
In laboratory experiments — involving collaborators from the University at Albany, Roswell Park Cancer Institute in Buffalo, the University of Waterloo, and McMaster University in Canada — Lovell tested the nanoballons in mice and found they could be manipulated by lasers. Once at the site of a tumor, the laser triggers the nanoballoons to pop open and release the drugs. When the laser is turned off, the spheres close, taking in proteins and molecules that might induce cancer growth, he explains. Doctors can then retrieve the nanoballoons by drawing blood or taking a biopsy.
 
They could then provide a "chemical snapshot" of the tumor's environment, which otherwise is very difficult to assess, he notes.
 
Lovell tells Newsmax Health he expects researchers could begin testing the technique in human patients "4-5 years from now, if things go as planned." The work is supported by the National Institutes of Health, which last year awarded Lovell grants from the National Institute of Biomedical Imaging and Bioengineering, as well as its Early Independence Award program, which funds high-risk, high-reward research.
 
A similar approach is underway at Lund University in Sweden, where researchers are using magnetically controlled nanoparticles to force tumor cells to "self-destruct."
 
In research published in the American Chemical Society journal Nano, Lund scientists have demonstrated that nanoparticles of iron oxide can be "supermagnetized" to be used like biological Trojan horses to destroy tumors by entering the cancer cells and exposing them to damaging magnetic fields. Once inside the tumors, the tiny particles begin to rotate in a way that causes the cells to diet off, effectively stopping the cancer.
 
Other researchers are experimenting with supermagnetic nanoparticles to treat cancer, but those efforts have focused on using the magnetic field to create heat to kills tumors, which can in turn cause inflammation that harms surrounding healthy tissues.
 
But the Lund scientists — who are working in collaboration with physicists, chemists, engineers, and doctors from Sweden, Germany, and the U.S. — have pioneered a new method, in which the rotation of the magnetic nanoparticles can be controlled, so it only affects the tumor cells they have entered.
 
"The clever thing about the technique is that we can target selected cells without harming surrounding tissue," says  Erik Renström, who has helped lead the project. "There are many ways to kill cells, but this method is contained and remote-controlled."
 
He adds that the new technique is primarily intended for cancer treatment, but it may also have potential for combatting autoimmune diseases such as Type 1 diabetes, in which the immune system attacks the body's own insulin production.
 
The researchers, who have a patent pending for their technique with the rotating nanoparticles, said more work needs to be done before the approach can move from the laboratory to clinical trials on patients. But the early work is promising, they say, and such trials could be only a few years away.

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