Targeting cancer cell by cell with "nanobubbles"

A group of scientists at Rice University has developed a technique to improve chemotherapy by targeting cancer cells only.
Written by Sarah Korones, Contributor

While chemotherapy has undoubtedly done wonderful things for cancer patients, the method’s unpleasant side effects can sometimes make treatment just as harmful as the disease it is trying to cure.

The problem remains that the drugs used during chemotherapy can’t differentiate between normal cells and cancerous ones, leaving patients with weakened immune systems and a number of other serious side effects.

But a group of scientists at Rice University has developed a technique that can precisely target cancer cells without harming normal ones. The treatment still uses chemotherapy, but instead of letting the drugs loose inside a person’s body, the method carefully injects drugs directly into cancer cells, targeting them with “nanobubbles.”

The method involves using lasers to create small bubbles around clumps of gold nanoparticles inside cancer cells. When the bubbles burst after a zap of the laser, the cells’ membranes are ripped opened, allowing drugs present outside the cells to get in.

"We are delivering cancer drugs or other genetic cargo at the single-cell level,” Dmitro Lapotko, one of the scientists involved in the project, said in a statement. “By avoiding healthy cells and delivering the drugs directly inside cancer cells, we can simultaneously increase drug efficacy while lowering the dosage."

According to the scientists’ data, delivering chemotherapy drugs via nanobubbles was up to 30 times more effective at killing cancer cells than traditional drug treatment and requires less than one-tenth the dose.

First, the researchers needed to place the gold nanoparticles inside the cancer cells. To do so, the team tagged the particles with antibodies that attach almost exclusively to cancer cells, which then ingest the particles, reports IEEE Spectrum. The nanoparticles then cluster below the cells’ membranes.

After the particles have been placed, the researchers create the nanobubbles by zapping a plasmon, or a wave of electrons found across the surface of the gold particle. With just the right wavelength, the laser can be sure to form nanobubbles only in cancer cells.

Tests of the method in the lab have proven effective but animal testing must still be done. The results of the experiments have recently appeared in three different papers in the journals Biomaterials, Advanced Materials and PLoS One.

Image: PLoS One, Video: Rice University

Bursting Bubbles Kill Cancer Cells [IEEE Spectrum]

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com

Editorial standards