By Alexandra Goho
A Tiny Technology Takes on Cancer
Nanoscale materials and devices could help revolutionize cancer therapies and diagnosis
By Alexandra Goho
Today more than ever, people are encountering the word nanotechnology. You may have heard it on television or seen it in newspapers. You might know it as something small and think of it as something futuristic. Indeed, nanotechnology is all about the world of small things, but it is happening now—and this rapidly advancing field is set to transform everything from computers and energy to medicine.
Nanotechnology involves engineering devices with dimensions on the nanoscale, the same scale as that of large biological molecules in our body, such as proteins or DNA. A nanometer is one billionth of a meter—and these devices typically have features just tens to hundreds of nanometers across.
Cancer research is one area in which nanotechnology could have a major impact. “It has enormous promise in helping us overcome a number of barriers that we can’t overcome with existing technologies,” says tumor immunologist Anna D. Barker, the deputy director for advanced technologies and strategic partnerships at the National Cancer Institute (NCI). For instance, engineered nanoparticles could deliver drugs directly to tumors in the body, resulting in fewer side effects and more effective treatment. Nanotechnology could enhance existing imaging systems to help doctors better pinpoint tumors. And diagnostic devices based on nanoscale sensors may, one day soon, help detect the earliest signs of cancer from a single drop of blood.
Research labs across the country have been quietly developing nanotechnologies for more than a decade. In 2005, the NCI Alliance for Nanotechnology was launched to help translate these innovations into clinical applications. The program has invested almost $150 million over five years, making it the largest federally funded cancer nanotechnology program in the world, says materials scientist Piotr Grodzinski, the program’s director. Now, early versions of these tiny tools are finally entering the clinical setting, where many researchers believe they could transform patient care.
Vehicle for Success
Indeed, a little can go a long way. “The first generation of these technologies will take the therapies we already have in the clinic and make them much more effective,” predicts Barker. Consider the drug Taxol (paclitaxel), which is widely prescribed for patients with lung, ovarian or breast cancers. Because the drug is insoluble in water, it must be mixed into a solvent, which can cause allergic reactions and is responsible for many side effects. Several labs are investigating ways of linking paclitaxel to water-soluble nanoscale particles that could be injected without the need for a solvent.
A chemotherapy-filled nanoparticle (lavender) is coated with targeting molecules (blue-purple) that bind to cancer cells. Once the nanoparticle is inside a cell, it releases the drugs (yellow). [Art: Nicolle Rager Fuller]
Mansoor Amiji, a pharmaceutical scientist at Northeastern University in Boston, is developing polymer nanoparticles for combating another problem: drug resistance in ovarian cancer. The first line of therapy is typically paclitaxel. However, says Amiji, “For almost all women who relapse, the drug Taxol is never going to work again.”