The three cornerstones of cancer treatment are surgery, chemotherapy and radiation therapy. These treatments have cured millions of people of cancer and eased the burden of cancer for at least as many. These treatments can be supplemented with, for example, medicine or immunotherapy. Yet, it’s common that cancer treatment causes physical and mental health side effects because healthy tissue is also affected. The dream and ultimate goal for researchers and doctors is to be able to develop cancer treatments that only target the cancer – no matter where it is in the body – and spare healthy cells and tissue.
In light of this, researchers are increasingly looking at nanotechnology, which many believe could revolutionise cancer diagnosis and treatment. Dudi Warsito, medical writer at cancer.se breaks it down.
Microscopically small particles can be the future of cancer care
The various chemical and cellular processes in our bodies that give rise to cancer take place at nanoscale – 1 to 100 nanometers (nm) to be exact. To put this in perspective, a human hair is about 100,000 nm in diameter. A virus can be between 20 to 400 nm while an elongated strand of DNA is 2.5 nm long.
For researchers and doctors, the areas of use for nanotechnology are many in cancer diagnosis and treatment. For example, being able to develop small carriers that look for cancer cells and tumors and deliver drugs directly to the cancer would revolutionize cancer care. The same applies to the possibility of detecting cancer before a tumor has formed. The fact that the tools are so small also makes it possible to access tumors that are hidden or are protected by the blood-brain barrier.
Nanoparticles make radiation-resistant tumors sensitive
A characteristic of cancer tumors is that they eventually develop resistance to treatments such as radiation and drugs. As radiation therapy is one of the cornerstones of cancer treatment, radiation-resistant tumors can create major problems. With the use of gold nanoparticles, researchers and doctors have taken a big step towards a solution.
When you expose gold particles to radiation, they emit weak energy and electrons that make the cancer tumor much more sensitive to radiation. The tumor eventually decreases in size and disappears. Researchers are currently trying to optimize various parameters to provide the best therapeutic effect.
Gold particles destroy prostate cancer cells
Prostate cancer is one of the most common cancers worldwide. There are good possibilities to treat the disease, especially if you detect it early. However, with these treatments come a risk of side effects that impact a patient’s quality of life, such as impotence and incontinence.
Recently, a US research team from Texas tested an innovative approach to attack prostate cancer – by using gold particles. The researchers created a nano-sized quartz glass sphere.The sphere was covered with nanoparticles of gold. Experimental studies have shown that nanoparticles seek out prostate cancer cells. When the researchers shot the particles with a laser, the nanoparticles began to pulsate at a high temperature, which killed the cancer cells.
Clinical studies are currently underway; so far the results are very promising. Studies show that the treatment does not affect nearby tissues and nerves, which drastically reduces the risk of uncomfortable side effects such as incontinence and impotence.
Nanotechnology protects vaccines
Immunotherapy has become an increasingly common way to treat widespread, advanced cancer. The basic idea of the therapy is to help the body’s own immune system attack the cancer – either with the help of vaccines, antibodies, or genetically modified immune cells.
With the Covid-19 pandemic, vaccines have taken center-stage The Covid-19 vaccine consists of mRNA molecules, but few are aware that several of the vaccines used against the new coronavirus use nanotechnology. mRNA molecules are very fragile and break down very easily. Researchers have therefore chosen to encapsulate them in nanoparticles that protect the vaccine and prolong their life.
Another area the researchers are looking more closely into is nano-scale vaccine doses. The goal is to extend the vaccine’s effect and thus reduce the need to have to take several shots to achieve complete protection. By developing nanocapsules that gradually release the vaccine over a longer period, the body is exposed to the vaccine over a longer period of time without having to take extra shots. Not only does this create a more effective protection, but could potentially reduce the cost and make the vaccine more accessible to everyone.
Improves the ability to detect cancer
Today, doctors use various imaging techniques such as X-rays, computed tomography, and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to detect cancer. However, these methods are not sensitive enough to detect very small tumors. When a tumor is so large that it can be detected, the risk of it already spreading is higher, which makes it harder to treat. In addition, imaging techniques cannot determine if the tumor is malignant or benign, so a biopsy needs to be done.
Because nanoparticles are so small, nanotechnology can be used to detect changes in only a few cells, before they have had time to form a malignant tumor. By coating nanoparticles with cancer-specific antibodies that light up in an MRI scan, it becomes much easier to detect cancer at an earlier stage.