Scientists fight cancer at the nanoscale

Treating cancer has always been a tricky undertaking. If the disease is caught early on, the cancer hasn’t yet spread and the malignancy is easily accessible, a basic operation may be all that’s needed. But even then, the tumor can pop up in other areas or the cancer can come back. Chemotherapy can be effective, but the side effects are often brutal. In spite of the horrible side effects most patients proceed with chemotherapy because it is their path toward beating cancer – but there is not a 100 percent success rate and it is by no means an easy process.

Both surgery and chemotherapy are also limited in terms of their ability to target cancer cells – perhaps even those that have not yet made themselves apparent – and eliminating them. The surgical technique is only viable when the tumor is of the right variety and area, while chemotherapy poisons the entire body to take out the cancer cells.

However, new methods of fighting cancer have emerged that utilize nano packages loaded with anti-cancer agents designed to target cancer cells and engage only once they’ve reached the specified area.

“New methods of fighting cancer have emerged that utilize nano packages”

Cancer stem cells in the crosshairs
In a new study from A*STAR Institute of Bioengineering and Nanotechnology, researchers explained how nanomaterials help to rid a patient of cancer stem cells, according to These stem cells can survive chemotherapy and might remain in the body after the treatment has ended, growing into new cancer cells and causing additional problems. But the innovative drug phenforim is effective against both cancer cells and cancer stem cells. However, the drug is extremely toxic in the doses necessary to fight cancer, so it is unwise to administer the drug through traditional means.

The team at the A*STAR Institute engineered self-assembling polymer nanoparticles that were capable of delivering phenforim directly to the cancer cells and cancer stem cells in infected mouse lungs.

“The results showed that the phenformin-loaded nanoparticles were more effective than free phenformin in inhibiting the growth of both cancer stem cells and normal cancer cells,” Yi Yan Yang of A*STAR told In addition, the nanoparticles did not cause the liver toxicity that resulted from systematically delivered phenforim.

In a separate study, scientists at Helmholtz Zentrum München (HMGU) and the Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität (LMU) in Munich are working on a similar cancer-drug delivery system, reported Gizmag. These researchers are focused on both treatment for existing cancer cells and on developing markers that can indicate early cancer development.

Similar to the A*STAR research, this team coated the nanoparticles in a material that can only be broken down by a particular enzyme that exists in high amounts in lung cancer tumors. In this way, the anti-cancer drug won’t be released until it reaches its target in lungs.

“We observed that the drug’s effectiveness in the tumor tissue was 10 to 25 times greater compared to when the drugs were used on their own,” lead researcher Dr. Silke Meiners said in the study, according to Gizmag. “At the same time, this approach also makes it possible to decrease the total dose of medicines and consequently to reduce undesirable effects.”

Drug treatments have something in common with the famous Trojan Horse.
Drug treatments have something in common with the famous Trojan Horse.

The old Trojan Horse trick
A third group of medical scientists are borrowing a timeless ruse first implemented by the ancient Greeks invading Troy. Researchers at Harvard and Massachusetts Institute of Technology created a promising agent that infiltrates a tumor, releases a dose of anti-cancer drug and seals it inside the cell, reported Cosmos Magazine. The team published its research in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The secret of the delivery system is a gold nanoparticle – gold is stable, capable of carrying other molecules, manageable at the nanoscale and non-toxic for humans. The material is perfect for the delivery of anti-cancer drugs that may be dangerous to humans in systematic doses.

Essentially, the gold nanoparticle is coated with short DNA chains that fit together much like the teeth of Velcro. The DNA chains only separate when they come upon a matching messenger RNA – in this case, the RNA chain behind the anti-drug protein found in some tumors. So when the nanoparticle encounters a tumor, the DNA chains open up and release the anti-cancer drug. Then the DNA chains flip around and latch onto the RNA, thereby preventing it from expelling the drug.

In this way, these gold nanoparticles inject the drug into a cancer cell and then block the way out – much like that legendary gift horse of the Trojan War.

The team injected these nanoparticles into mice with drug-resistant tumors. Within two weeks, the tumors were reduced by 90 percent, while 80 percent of the drug-resistant genes were neutralized.

“We were excited to see this and were encouraged by how well the treatment worked with just one application,” said Natalie Artzi of the research team.

All of these methods could prove to be the future of cancer treatment. With the necessary chemical analysis, they could soon be available to patients in need.