Excellent Idea of the Day: Nano Cancer Killers

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This is a neuroblastoma. A new nanoparticle can deliver a deadly drug directly to the cancer, reducing the need for chemotherapy.
National Cancer Institute / Dr. Maria Tsokos

A new nanoparticle could improve chemotherapy treatment for a deadly form of cancer that attacks children.

Neuroblastoma is a cancer that requires aggressive chemotherapy that can leave patients with lingering health problems, so any way to reduce the amount of chemotherapy drugs given would be welcome, say researchers from the Australian Center for Nanomedicine at the University of New South Wales in Sydney.

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The UNSW team made a nanometer-sized particle that delivers nitric oxide (NO) to the tumor cells. The nitric oxide particles are injected directly into the tumor, which kills the cancer cells. So far, it has been tested in the lab, on cultured neuroblastoma cells.

The work was reported in the journal Chemical Communications.

D Cyrille Boyer from the School of Chemical Engineering, one of the co-authors of the study, told Discovery News that each particle is less than 20 nanometers across, and is made of a polymer coated with a molecule that binds to the target cell. Once the tiny particle is inside the cell, it dissolves and releases the nitric oxide.

The idea was to make a particle – a capsule – that is stable when exposed to blood serum, for example, but breaks up when exposed to the environment inside a cancerous cell. That's because nitric oxide is a gas; it diffuses readily in blood and without some way of containing it, there would be no way to target the cancer cells.

After the nitric oxide hits the cancer cells, Boyer and his colleagues found that they needed only a fifth of the usual dose of chemotherapy drugs to kill them.

In addition to neuroblastoma, Boyer also plans to test it on other types of cancer cells.

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He cautioned that the experiment has only been done on cultured cells. The nanoparticles still need to be tried on actual cancers in living organisms and the first subjects are going to be mice. Boyer said it could be a decade before this gets to clinical trials.

Even so, if the nitric oxide only boosts chemotherapy's effectiveness by a factor of two rather than five, it's still a great step, Boyer said.

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