Nanotech blasts cancer cells with tumor-killing genes

U.K. researchers develop tech that leaves healthy cells undamaged in treatment

Scientists in the U.K. are using nanotechnology to blast cancer cells in mice with "tumor busting" genes, giving new hope to patients with inoperable tumors.

The new technique has been shown to leave healthy cells undamaged in tests on mice. Researchers are hoping to do human trials within two years, according to the School of Pharmacy at the University of London.

"Gene therapy has a great potential to create safe and effective cancer treatments, but getting the genes into cancer cells remains one of the big challenges in this area," said Andreas Schatzlein, the study's author, in a written statement. "This is the first time that nanoparticles have been shown to target tumors in such a selective way, and this is an exciting step forward in the field."

Listen to an interview with Schatzlein on gene therapy here.

Nanotechnology has held a critical role in the fight against cancer over the past year.

In December, for example, researchers at MIT announced that they had developed nanotechnology that can be placed inside living cells to determine whether chemotherapy drugs are reaching their targets or attacking healthy cells. The sensors, which can detect chemotherapy drugs as well as toxins and free radicals, are carbon nanotubes that scientists have wrapped in DNA so they can be safely injected into living tissue.

And last August, scientists at Stanford University reported that they had found a way to use nanotechnology to have chemotherapy drugs target only cancer cells, keeping healthy tissue safe from the treatment's toxic effects.

Cancer researchers have long been trying to figure out how to better deliver drugs to cancer cells without blasting surrounding cells. By better targeting chemotherapy drugs, less needs to be injected into the patient, which would reduce side effects such as nausea, hair loss, weight loss and fatigue.

The Stanford news came on the heels of a report that researchers at the University of California, San Diego, had discovered a way to use nanotechnology-based "smart bombs" to send lower doses of chemotherapy to cancerous tumors, thus reducing the cancer's ability to spread through the body.

In the British study, researchers used nanotechnology to package anti-cancer genes in very small particles that targeted tumors in the mice. The particles were taken in only by the cancer cells and not the healthy ones. Once that happens, the genes force the cancer cell to produce proteins that kill the cancer.

The University of London reported that the technology is particularly good for people dealing with inoperable cancers, which are often near critical organs like the brain or lungs. Scientists plan on running experiments to see if the new technique also would work on cancers that have spread through the body.

"These results are encouraging, and we look forward to seeing if this method can be used to treat cancer in people," said Lesley Walker, Cancer Research UK's director of cancer information, in a statement. "Gene therapy is an exciting area of research, but targeting genetic changes to cancer cells has been a major challenge. This is the first time a solution has been proposed, so it's exciting news."

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