MIT researchers use nanotechnology to personalize drug therapy

Nanoparticles and silicon chips could target cancerous tumors or individual organs

Researchers at MIT have developed a new nanotechnology that could someday be implanted in the human body to target tumors or specific organs with time-released drug dosages.

Layering charged nanoparticles with medications like chemotherapy drugs or insulin, scientists are hoping to directly deliver drugs for critical and chronic diseases such as cancer and diabetes, according to Paula Hammond, a Bayer professor of chemical engineering at MIT. Once the layered device is in the body, it will be activated by a remote control or a silicon chip programmed to dispense specific dosages at specific intervals.

"I think this actually marks a new direction for medicine, which is the personalization of medical care," said Hammond, who has been working on this project for the past four years. "There's an interest in being able to better design a procedure [specific] to the patient's individual needs, instead of using the same protocols for every patient -- especially in life-and-death areas like cancer or chronic disorders like diabetes. As we build more and more of these smart systems that can respond to some stimulus, we become more capable of designing these personalized approaches to therapy."

The layers of nanoparticles and medications form a thin film -- on the nanometer scale. "We are incorporating drugs into the film layer by layer. There's the medication layer and the nanocrystal layer," explained Hammond. "It's like building a sandwich with negative and positive materials on top of each other. When we apply a small electrical field, just a little jolt, a little bit of that film falls apart. When that happens, this sandwich, which is held together by positive and negative charges, begins to fall apart."

And as a layer of the film disintegrates, the medication is released. The amount of drug delivered and the timing of the dosage can be precisely controlled by turning the voltage on and off.

The electrical field can be created by a remote control or by a silicon chip and microbattery, added Hammond.

The patient would not swallow this film. It would be implanted inside the body. For instance, if the patient is fighting a cancerous tumor, the film could be implanted on the tumor itself. And if a tumor is removed from a patient but doctors worry that the cancer could return, they could deposit the film in the area where the tumor had been.

The MIT team is working on loading the films with different cancer drugs.

"We're looking at the potential of incorporating chemotherapy drugs and using an insert placed in or near a tumor so the chemo drugs can be released in pulses over a long period of time," said Hammond. "You would have absolute control over it. If you needed to, you could apply more medication or you could stop the medication."

She added that at some point, a computer chip might be able to recognize a patient's rising blood-sugar levels and trigger the film to release insulin to the pancreas, or the chip could sense that an epileptic patient is about to have a seizure and trigger the film to release needed medication to stop it.

Hammond said researchers just finished developing the materials, including the nanoparticles and the film. The next step will be to work on releasing the drugs to cell cultures. They could begin testing on mice as early as a year from now, with large-animal and human testing slated for four to five years from now, according to the professor.

Copyright © 2008 IDG Communications, Inc.

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