Fighting cancer with nanotechnology: lasers, nanoballoons and nanoparticles

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.

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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.

Google Glass: the Latest Healthcare Device for Doctors

In what just might be the first really useful application of Google Glass, Californian company Augmedix has created software for the wearable technology that provides assistance and support to doctors.

The technology is designed to cut the amount of time doctors spend doing paperwork and updating files so that they can spend more face-to-face time with their patients.

Speaking to Fox Business this week, Augmedix CEO Ian Shakil said: “Right now in America doctors unfortunately spend 30, 40, 50% of their day on their computer typing, documenting.  It’s the biggest pain point in their lives but it’s tragic for the patient as well who often has to look at the doctor’s back.

“When doctors wear Google Glass and use our service we reclaim all that time feeding the beast and give it back to doctors, give it back to care.”

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The system works by querying a secure patient database and returning key information about a patient, such as any medication they are on, details of their last visit and key stats such as blood pressure and weight.

This means that the doctor is presented with all the information needed without having to spend time during a consultation looking away from their patient at a screen. This enables more face time with patients and can mean more time is spent on examinations as any queries that arise about a patient’s medical history can be quickly checked without having to break the doctor’s current activity.

While such details may not seem revolutionary, Shakil is adamant that Augmedix has been welcome by medical practitioners.

“The doctor reaction has been extraordinary; we really are taking away the biggest pain point in their lives,” he said.

Doctors aren’t the only ones who believe that Augmedix has potential. The company recently received $3.2m of venture funding to enable the roll-out of the technology across the US.

However, a device such as Glass undoubtedly comes with privacy concerns; Augmedix does require what Shakil describes as “the audio-visual stream from the doctor’s perspective”, and some patients may be deeply concerned about being recorded in potentially vulnerable situations.

In the US, where the technology is being launched, the federal information privacy rules that govern many aspects of government services have yet to be updated to include Google Glass. This means that every patient must sign a consent form before a doctor can attend to them wearing the technology.

There has also been growing hostility towards some Glass wearers, although it is possible that patients may have a better opinion of Glass in a space they see as official and regulated – a doctor’s treatment room – than on the street being worn by someone they don’t know.

While the technology hasn’t received 100% acceptance among patients, in areas it has been tested, such as San Francisco and Texas, Shakil says the response has been generally positive.

“By and large patients are a-ok with their doctors wearing Google Glass,” he explained. “We inform them when they come in to see their doctor ahead of time: this is Glass, this is our service, here’s the security, here’s a laminated FAQ, if you have any questions or concerns you can always ask your doctor to remove Glass.”


Images courtesy of Augmedix.