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MIT uses nanotubes to help fight cancer

Nanotechnology is injected into living cells to monitor how well chemo targets tumors

December 15, 2008 12:00 PM ET

Computerworld - MIT today announced that a group of scientists has 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, according to a release from the university.

"We've made a sensor that can be placed in living cells, healthy or malignant, and actually detect several different classes of molecules that damage DNA," said Michael Strano, an associate professor of chemical engineering at MIT, in a statement.

Last summer, the university used nanotechnology to significantly shrink computer chips, making them cheaper and more powerful. The university said the process would enable the creation of 25-nanometer chips.

Just this past 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 a way to better deliver drugs to cancer cells without blasting surrounding cells as well. The Stanford researchers devised a way to use single-walled carbon nanotubes as targeted medicinal delivery vehicles.

By better targeting the chemotherapy, less of the drug needs to be injected into the patient for cancer treatment. And that would reduce the side effects of chemotherapy treatment, such as nausea, hair loss, weight loss and fatigue.

And that Stanford news came right 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 cutting down the cancer's ability to spread throughout the body.

The UCSD treatment strategy focuses on halting the ability of pancreatic and kidney cancers to metastasize. The treatment also appears to cause less damage to surrounding tissue than traditional chemotherapy, according to the university.

This week's news out of MIT focuses on research that someday might enable doctors to better monitor chemotherapy patients to ensure the drugs are effectively battling the tumors. Chemotherapy can disrupt a patient's DNA, according to MIT, so it's critical that the drug reaches the tumors and not healthy cells.

"You could figure out not only where the drugs are, but [also] whether a drug is active or not," said Daniel Heller, an MIT graduate student in chemical engineering, in a statement.

By using the nanosensors, researchers can monitor living cells over an extended period of time, according to MIT. The nanotubes work in the cell by giving off a fluorescent light. Since different drugs or agents change the intensity or wavelength of the light emitted, doctors would be able to discern what is being detected by the signature of fluorescent light being given off.

MIT also noted that its researchers plan to use the sensors to study the effects of various antioxidants, such as the compounds in green tea. They hope it will help them figure out how to more effectively use chemotherapy drugs.

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