Scientists are working with nanoballoons that are popped by lasers to target chemotherapy treatments directly at cancerous tumors.
The new nanotechnology-based treatment could make chemotherapy treatments more effective, reduce harm to healthy tissue and capture proteins and molecules that aid in cancer growth.
"Why PoP-liposomes, or nanoballoons, open in response to an otherwise harmless red laser is still a bit of a mystery to us, but we have definitely unearthed a new and unique phenomenon," said Jonathan Lovell, assistant professor of biomedical engineering at the University at Buffalo, part of the State University of New York, in a statement. "Its potential for improving how we treat cancer is immense."
The nanoballoons, which are about 1,000 times thinner than a human hair, are made of porphyrin, an organic compound, and phospholipid, a fat similar to vegetable oil. The balloons are designed to hold chemotherapy drugs and are delivered to the patient intraveneously.
Researchers then hit the nanoballoons with a red laser when they reach the cancer target. When hit with the laser, the balloons pop open, delivering the drugs.
According to the university, since the chemotherapy drugs travel through the patient's system enclosed in nanoballoons, the drugs' interaction with, and damaging effects on healthy tissue are greatly diminished.
However, the nanoballoons don't just deliver medication.
Once the chemo drugs are released, the balloons then capture proteins and molecules that might induce cancer growth, the university said.
Doctors could then retrieve the nanoballoons and their contents by drawing the patient's blood or taking a biopsy.
"The nanoballoon is [like] a submarine," Lovell said. "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."
So far the treatment has only been tested on mice, though the university said human trials can start within five years.
Researchers have been using nanotechnology in other ways to fight cancer.
Last fall, scientists from Cornell University and MIT announced that they were using nanotechnology to treat cancer.
The Cornell team paired nanoparticles with infrared heat to kill colorectal cancer cells. At MIT, scientists were focused on breast cancer, using nanoparticles to carry chemotherapy drugs along with a genetic messenger to weaken the cancer's resistance to the medicine.
A year earlier, another MIT research team reported using nanotechnology to detect cancer sooner, increasing the odds of beating the disease.
This article, Scientists battle cancer with nanoballoons and lasers, was originally published at Computerworld.com.
Sharon Gaudin covers the Internet and Web 2.0, emerging technologies, and desktop and laptop chips for Computerworld. Follow Sharon on Twitter at @sgaudin, on Google+ or subscribe to Sharon's RSS feed . Her email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.