Targeting cancerous tumours with precision
EU-funded researchers have developed novel technology for treating cancer patients that could deliver drugs exactly where they are needed in the human body. The potential breakthrough, which combines diagnosis and treatment, could significantly boost the effectiveness of the drugs currently used against cancer - giving patients a better chance of surviving.
© freshidea fotolia
Cancer is second to cardiovascular disease as the leading cause of death in Europe. Conventional chemotherapy treatment for cancer patients relies on highly toxic drugs, mostly taken intravenously. Taken this way, these drugs can destroy both healthy and cancerous cells, causing harmful side-effects and other complications.
The EU-funded Nanother project used the science of nanotechnology as an alternate way of deliver these drugs more effectively, potentially boosting the benefits and reducing side-effects. Nanotechnology is the manipulation of materials at the nano scale – between 1 to 100 nanometres, with one nanometre equal to a billionth of a metre.
The project team, which completed its work in August 2012, selected and developed a number of promising particles at the nano size designed to seek out tumours and carry drugs directly to them. Using these so-called nanocarriers, medicines could be delivered far more precisely than chemotherapy treatments, in just the right amounts.
Along with developing nanoparticles as tiny tumour detectors and as drug carriers, the team also developed software to support the analysis of tumours and as a possible aid for diagnosis and therapy, says Dr Pedro Heredia of Fundación Gaiker, Nanother’s coordinator.
Seek and destroy
The team’s work has helped develop an approach to using nanoparticles, both to detect cancerous cells, and to destroy them, he adds. This approach points the way forward to creating and adapting suitable nanoparticles for particular types of cancerous tumours.
Patients would then be able to receive treatment that is best for their specific type of cancer. Since the treatment is targeted, patients would avoid being subjected to higher and thus potentially more harmful doses of drugs to ensure that sufficient quantities reach the cancerous cells.
The team has also identified nanoparticles that once injected into an area near a potential tumour, latch on to the targeted cells, generating crucial input for doctors to make decisions about the most effective treatment.
The ability to diagnose cancer at a very early stage, improves a patient’s chances of receiving successful treatment, says Dr Heredia.
Combining therapy and diagnostics
The project team included partners from the biomedical sector and from physical sciences and engineering collaborating across the traditional boundaries of their fields. The team’s research also benefited from the involvement of both businesses and academic organisations.
Industrial partners, says Dr Heredia, are highly market-oriented, whereas academia concentrates more on understanding things.
“Combining these two approaches added value to the project as we reached a consensus in the middle, doing good science, but focusing on the market,” he notes.
Dr Heredia says that more work is needed to refine the technology, adapt it for specific applications and prepare the proposed products for trials.
“Overall, if everything is OK, I would say no less than 10 years to market,” he says.
He adds: “In principle, the ideal situation would be to continue with the nanocarriers that have yielded good results and try to get onboard companies willing to further explore the business opportunities that may arise. We are in the process of searching for possible companies to exploit the research.”