Blanket chemotherapy, the primary method for treating cancerous tumours, has long been seen as a very heavy-handed approach, but for many years nothing has matched it in terms of effectiveness.
But that could soon change. Today two entirely different approaching to fighting cancer were announced, which have two things in common. Firstly, they work using nanotechnology, and secondly, they are targeted solutions.
A targeted cancer treatment would be revolutionary for the field: no longer would the dreadful, exhausting side effects of conventional treatments have to be endured by already weak cancer patients. Instead tumours could be destroyed without risking damage to other parts of the body.
One cancer-busting approach uses magnetically controlled nanoparticles to make tumour cells self destruct.
Microscopic particles of iron oxide that have been magnetised using a special method are applied to the tumour cells. Once they are inside the cancerous cells, the iron nanoparticles are exposed to magnetic field.
Because they have been magnetised, this causes the particles to rotate, making them destroy the cancer cells.
This isn’t the first time magnetic nanoparticles have been tried to treat cancers, but it has the advantage over other approaches because previous attempts generated heat to damage the cancer. This had the unfortunate side effect of damaging surrounding healthy tissue, making it a risky treatment solution.
“The clever thing about the technique is that we can target selected cells without harming surrounding tissue. There are many ways to kill cells, but this method is contained and remote-controlled,” said Lund University professor Erik Renström.
An alternative solution still uses chemotherapeutic drugs, but in a way that makes the normal approach of whole body treatment seem like something out of the dark ages.
Instead concentrated doses of the medicine are encased in tiny nanoballoons, also known as PoP-liposomes, that are 1,000 times thinner than a human hair, and are made of an organic compound with a substance similar to vegetable oil.
Nanoballoons have a curious property that researchers are yet to fully understand: they open when hit by a red laser that is completely harmless to humans. As a result, the drug-filled balloons could be triggered to open in the affected area of the body, treating the cancer while minimising side effects.
“Think of it this way,” said study author and University at Buffalo biomedical engineering assistant professor Dr Jonathan Lovell. “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.”
Both technologies are a long way from being ready for public use.
The nanoparticles team says there is a lot of work to be done before clinical trials on the solution can even start, and Lovell believes that the nanoballoon system could start clinical trials within five years.
Nevertheless, we can only hope this is the start of a whole new approach to cancer treatment.