Remote-controlled nanoparticles target cancer

Researchers build microcarriers that deliver medicine directly to targets

Researchers at a Canadian university are using nanotechnology and a tiny remote-controlled magnetic sphere to deliver cancer-fighting drugs directly to where they need to go.

A scientific team at the Polytechnique Montréal, one of Canada's leading engineering schools, reported this week that they were able guide microcarriers through a live animal's blood stream and deposit anti-cancer medicine directly on a targeted area on the animal's liver.

The carriers, made out of magnetic nanoparticles and biodegradable polymer, can be basically driven through arteries using a remote controlled device.

The importance of this work lies in the ability for doctors to get the cancer-fighting drugs directly to a tumor or cancerous tissue so the medicine doesn't harm healthy tissue in the body.

If harsh chemotherapy drugs can be diverted away from healthy tissue and aimed specifically at the cancer, the cancerous cells would receive a stronger blast of medicine and patients should have fewer debilitating side-effects from the treatment.

Sylvain Martel, director of the Nanorobotics Laboratory at Polytechnique Montréal and a research leader, said reducing side effects was possible thanks to the nanoparticles of the microcarriers measuring just 50 micrometers in diameter, which is less than a human hair.

The nanoparticles also act as tiny magnets, allowing an upgraded magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) system to act as a remote control system that can guide them through a living body, the university noted.

Researchers have increasingly been using nanotechnology in their cancer-fighting research in recent years.

Last June, scientists at Rice University reported that they had added nanoechnology to an off-the-shelf digital camera to help doctors distinguish healthy cells from cancerous cells in the human body. Targeted nanoparticles deliver fluorescent dyes to cells and then the cancerous cells can be seen on the souped-up camera's LCD screen.

Also last year, researchers from three universities announced that they were jointly developing a nanotechnology cocktail that should target and kill cancerous tumors. The mixture of two different-sized nanoparticles work with the body's bloodstream to seek out, stick to and kill tumors.

Stanford University researchers announced late in 2009 that they had used nanotechnology and magnetics to create a biosensor designed to detect cancer in its early stages, making a cure more likely. University scientists reported that the sensor, which sits on a microchip, is 1,000 times more sensitive than cancer detectors used clinically today.

Sharon Gaudin covers the Internet and Web 2.0, emerging technologies, and desktop and laptop chips for Computerworld. Follow Sharon on Twitter at @sgaudin or subscribe to Sharon's RSS feed . Her e-mail address is sgaudin@computerworld.com.

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