Nanotechnology is being heralded by many researchers as the future of medical science. A new study published this week in Nature Biotechnology provides an incredible insight into this brave, new, miniaturized future.
A few decades ago, the idea of developing any type of solution in the nanoscale was nothing more than a dream.
The word "nanotechnology" was only seen in print for the first time as recently as 1986.
Manipulating, creating and utilizing objects that are 100,000 times smaller than the width of a hair is science fiction turned science fact.
Today, nano-sized particles help golf balls fly straighter, make the surfaces of bowling balls more durable and give exterior varnishes a longer life.
Industry and manufacturing have taken nanoparticles to their bosom, but their abilities are also being tested for possible uses in the medical sphere; for instance, bandages infused with silver nanoparticles have been designed to help wounds heal faster.
Among the list of potential medical uses for nanotechnology are targeted drug delivery systems in the fight against diseases, including cancer.
Current cancer drug delivery
Metastases of cancers in the lung and liver are the primary causes of cancer deaths. In many cases, existing cancer drugs are of limited power because of the body's protective biological barriers. The chemicals fail to reach their intended targets in high enough concentrations and are distributed into healthy tissues, causing serious side effects.
Mauro Ferrari, president and CEO of the Houston Methodist Research Institute in Texas, has been working with nanomedicine for 20 years, and his latest research provides some of the most impressive results to date.
Ferrari and his team created a mechanism by which nanoparticles could move through these biological defenses and, once inside the tumor, release the toxic chemicals directly into the heart of the problem.
Injectable nanoparticle generator
The team used an injectable nanoparticle generator (iNPG), composed of the active drug - doxorubicin - packaged as thin strands of polymer within a nanoporous silicon material.
Once the iNPG enters the tumor, the silicon outer coating naturally degrades, releasing the polymer strands. The strands curl up into nano-scale balls and enter the cancer cells themselves. As the balls move freely around the cell and approach the nucleus, the pH becomes more acidic. This drop in pH triggers the strands to release the doxorubicin, which then kills the cell.
The iNPGs were trialed on mice with triple negative breast cancer that had metastasized into the tissues of the lungs. Triple negative cancers account for roughly 1 in 10 breast cancers. They are particularly difficult to treat and do not respond to hormonal therapy.
'What we discovered is transformational'
Although the prognosis for triple negative cancer is poor, Ferrari and his team found that 50% of the mice treated by the iNPGs showed no traces of metastatic disease after an 8-month period, which is considered the equivalent of 24 human years.
"This may sound like science fiction, like we've penetrated and destroyed the Death Star, but what we discovered is transformational. We invented a method that actually makes the nanoparticles inside the cancer and releases the drug particles at the site of the cellular nucleus."
The investigators are incredibly pleased with these results and hope they will shepherd in a new dawn of medical intervention. Any headway into the treatment of such an intractable disease is entirely welcome.
The authors say that "with this injectable nanoparticle generator, we were able to do what standard chemotherapy drugs, vaccines, radiation and other nanoparticles have all failed to do." The Houston Methodist Research Institute are hoping to fast-track the research and secure FDA (US Food and Drug Administration) approval as soon as possible. They plan to trial the drugs in humans in 2017.
Although keen to keep the findings in perspective and not raise hopes unnecessarily, Ferrari has a difficult time keeping his positivity under wraps:
"I would never want to over-promise to the thousands of cancer patients looking for a cure, but the data is astounding. We're talking about changing the landscape of curing metastatic disease, so it's no longer a death sentence."
Ferrari's excitement is both palpable and understandable. Even if future research using human participants returns with survival rates that are only a fraction of those found in the present study, the results will be deemed a rousing success.
Medical News Today recently covered news of another "groundbreaking" cancer discovery that holds promise for personalizing cancer therapy.