The first in a new generation of nanotechnology-based cancer treatments will likely begin clinical trials in 2007, and if the promise of animal trials carries through to human trials, these treatments will transform cancer therapy. By replacing surgery and conventional chemotherapy with noninvasive treatments targeted at cancerous tumors, this nanotech approach could reduce or eliminate side effects by avoiding damage to healthy tissue. It could also make it possible to destroy tumors that are inoperable or won’t respond to current treatment.
One of these new approaches places gold-coated nanoparticles, called nanoshells, inside tumors and then heats them with infrared light until the cancer cells die. Because the nanoparticles also scatter light, they could be used to image tumors as well. Mauro Ferrari, a leader in the field of nanomedicine and professor of bioengineering at the University of Texas Health Science Center, says this is “very exciting” technology.
“With chemotherapy,” Ferrari says, “we carpet bomb the patient, hoping to hit the lesions, the little foci of disease. To be able to shine the light only where you want this thing to heat up is a great advantage.”
Although several groups are now working on similar localized treatments, Naomi Halas and Jennifer West have led the way in this area, and their work is the farthest along. (See “Nano Weapons Join the Fight Against Cancer.”) Nearly ten years ago, Halas, professor of chemistry and electrical and computer engineering at Rice University, developed a precise and reliable method for making nanoshells, which can be hollow spheres of gold or, in the case of the cancer treatment, gold-coated glass spheres. These spheres are small enough (about 100 nanometers in diameter) to slip through gaps in blood vessels that feed tumors. So as they circulate in the bloodstream, they gradually accumulate at tumor sites.
Halas tuned the nanoparticles to absorb specific wavelengths of light by changing the thickness of the glass and gold. For the cancer treatment, she selected infrared wavelengths that pass easily through biological tissues without causing damage. To destroy a nanoshell-infiltrated tumor, the tumor is illuminated with a laser, either through the skin or via an optical fiber for areas such as the lungs.
“We shine light through the skin, and in just a few minutes, the tumor is heated up,” Halas says. “In the studies that were initially reported–and this has been repeated now more than 20 times in at least three different animal models–we have seen essentially 100 percent tumor remission.” The tests also suggest the nanoshells are nontoxic. Halas says they are eliminated from the body through the liver over several weeks. The technology was developed at Rice in collaboration with Jennifer West, a professor of bioengineering. It has been licensed by Nanospectra Biosciences, a startup based in Houston, TX, that is beginning the process of getting FDA approval for clinical trials for treating head and neck cancer. In the future, the technology could be used for a wide variety of cancers.
“There is a potential for this to bring a profound change in cancer treatment,” Halas says. “For the case of someone discovering a lump in their breast, this would mean that a very simple procedure could be performed that would induce remission.” She says that “for many, many cases of cancer, rather than the lengthy chemotherapy or radiation therapy,” an individual would have “one simple treatment and very little side effects.”
Halas anticipates that approval for the method will come quickly, in part because the nanotechnology is not a drug but a device, for which the approval process is simpler. Also, she expects it will perform the same in humans as in animal models, “because heat and light work in exactly the same way whether you’re in a pig, a dog, [or] a human being.”
Since their initial experiments, the researchers have been further developing the technology. They’ve demonstrated the ability to coat the nanoshells with antibodies that latch on to breast-cancer cells, further improving the selectivity of the treatment. They’ve also attached molecules that make the nanoshells into pH sensors that would be useful for both imaging tumors and as an “optical biopsy” for identifying cancers, Halas says.
The clinical trials this year will not take advantage of these advances. But eventually the antibody targeting could make preventative cancer treatments possible. “If you have the genetic profile for prostate cancer occurring in your family, one could imagine treating extremely early stages, when you have something a millimeter or smaller which you could barely visualize,” Halas says. “With antibody targeting and then illumination of that region, you could destroy those cells at a very early stage. You could have a treatment every five to ten years, and then you would be free of the disease.” The nanotechnology could also be used to eradicate cancers that have spread too much to be removed by surgery.
While people will not be able to take advantage of these advances in the near future, Halas says that treatments based on the original design could be available in a couple of years. Ferrari cautions that most treatments do not make it through clinical trials, but, he says, “I’m hopeful that their clinical trials will yield great results.”