Tiny treatment, big effect: Nanotechnology to treat bone cancer

Nanotechnology is more than just your ultra-thin smartphone or laptop. In fact, medical researchers’ newest nanotechnology development could save lives as a highly effective treatment for bone cancer.

Scientists at Brigham and Women’s Hospital and Dana-Farber Cancer Institute have engineered a system of nanoparticles that target bones, releasing drugs that kill tumour cells within them, stop the spread of cancer and promote the regrowth of healthy bone tissue.

What makes these nanoparticles work so well for bone treatments? They are coated with alendronate, a calcium-rich therapeutic agent that amasses in bones.

Since the nanoparticles are drawn to the calcium-laden bone tissue, they carry the drugs inside the alendronate coating directly to the affected area.


Alendronate is already used to treat bone metastasis, or the spread of cancer to other bones. In this way, alendronate is not only directing the trajectory of the treatment, but stopping tumours from growing in healthy tissues.

As with many potential drugs, the treatment was first tested on mice. The mice were pre-treated with nanoparticles containing the bortezomib, an anti-cancer drug, injected with cancerous cells and then treated with the alendronate system.

The combination of pre-treatment and nanoparticle treatment increased bone strength, slowed the growth of the cancer cells and allowed the mice to live longer.

“These findings suggest that bone-targeted nanoparticle anti-cancer therapies offers a novel way to deliver a concentrated amount of drug in a controlled and target-specific manner to prevent tumor progression in multiple myeloma,” stated Dr Omid Farokhzad, co-senior author of the treatment study.

Indeed, this style of highly-targeted treatment is one of the great benefits of nanomedicine, as it causes fewer unintended effects on the rest of the body.


Dr Irene Ghobrial, another co-senior study author, further explained the impact of the nanomedical treatment: “This work will pave the way for the development of innovative clinical trials in patients with myeloma to prevent progression from early precursor stages or in patients with breast, prostate or lung cancer who are at high-risk to develop bone metastasis.”

Between 60% and 80% of cancer patients develop bone metastasis, and nanotechnology could drastically decrease that number through both prevention in patients whose cancer could spread to their bones and treatment in those who already have bone tumours.

Perhaps the future will even see nanoparticle systems tailored to target different parts of the body, so that highly specific and efficient treatments become the norm until a cure is developed.

Brain control at the flick of a light switch

Scientists have developed a new method of brain control that can manipulate neurons simply by shining a light outside the skull. This noninvasive process could be used to treat epilepsy and other brain disorders.

The technology, called optogenetics, typically needs the light source to be directly implanted within the brain for the cells’ electrical signals to be affected.

Hoping to eliminate the need for this direct implantation, scientists at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology looked to the light-responsive molecules found in microbes for inspiration.

Optogenetics is often used when studying the brain because it allows scientists to turn certain neurons on and off to better understand their functions.

However, surgical implantation of the light source is challenging, and the implant can make studies of brain development and disease difficult because of its effects on growth.


Though none of the molecules had light-sensing capabilities strong enough for noninvasive control originally, the scientists were able to genetically engineer a protein from related microbes with an impressive sensitivity to light. They named this protein Jaws.

The team of engineers, led by Professor Ed Boyden, tested the Jaws protein on mice. They used Jaws to completely shut down neural activity in a mouse’s brain just by shining a light at its head.

“This exemplifies how the genomic diversity of the natural world can yield powerful reagents that can be of use in biology and neuroscience,” explained Boyden.

Jaws has already shown potential for treating a disease called retinis pigmentosa, which can cause blindness by weakening the light sensitivity of retinal cells. Because Jaws has a wider range of light sensitivity, it could help restore vision.

Noninvasive brain control could also help epileptic patients by shutting off the neurons that misfire and cause seizures.


Though a promising technology, don’t expect your doctor to be using it anytime soon: “Since these molecules come from species other than humans, many studies must be done to evaluate their safety and efficacy in the context of treatment,” Boyden said, emphasizing that Jaws is still in its developmental phase.

Engineers at MIT are also exploring additional uses for Jaws and searching for other proteins that could have similar applications.

The medical uses of these noninvasive brain control techniques could prove groundbreaking, but their potential implications are more than a little problematic. The prospect of being able to turn your brain off with the flick of a light switch, while alarming, could be a possibility in the not-so-distant future.

First body image courtesy of Arielle Fragrassi. Second body image courtesy of Paul Cross.