A non-invasive treatment with fewer side effects to combat cancer? Impossible you say. Well, you may be wrong, and it may be coming sooner than you’d expect.
As cancer affects 1 in 4 of us now, it is unlikely anyone is lucky enough to not be aware of the devastating disease, and also the not so pleasant side-effects which come with current treatments. The Cancer Research UK website lists various procedures which can be undertaken once cancer has been diagnosed (chemotherapy, radiotherapy etc.), but all are invasive and have non-desirable side-effects.
So how can this be bettered, easing people’s suffering and improving survival rates?
In 2009 I was lucky enough to have work experience at the NanoScience Centre in Cambridge, where one area of research particularly caught my attention: Gold NanoShells. To the left is an example of a Gold NanoShell: a nanosized glass sphere, plated in gold (~50x smaller than a red blood cell). These NanoShells are inert (not reactive) and non-toxic, although the long-term effects of gold in the body are unknown.
But how can these tiny, inert things be used to target cancer specifically? Cancerous tumours need a blood supply to survive and, because they’re so hell-bent on growing, they make new blood vessels too quickly. As a result, these blood vessels are ‘leaky’ (meaning they have lots of holes). Gold NanoShells are injected into the blood stream and use the leaky blood vessels to gain access to cancerous tumour surfaces. The Gold NanoShells can bind to the surface of the cancerous cells and this is where (what appears to be) magic happens…
Gold is heated by infrared light. Therefore, knowing where the tumour is located, the doctor is able to aim an infrared beam of light to this site. Infrared light can pass through skin without causing harm or any burns, but it provides the ability to heat the Gold NanoShells. As the NanoShells are bound to the cancerous cell surfaces, when they are heated they also heat the surrounding cancerous cells and minimal numbers of healthy cells. This heating causes the death of the cancerous cells, and thus the tumour. This process is called photothermal therapy. Over time (about a week) the body will then naturally break down the dead cells.
This treatment would be more targeted than current therapies, which aim to kill rapidly multiplying cells (such as hair cells) and therefore, reduce side effects such as hair loss. Chemotherapy, radiotherapy (etc.) tend to require multiple doses and procedures, but it is hoped that Gold NanoShells will reduce the number of treatments required to eradicate a tumour. Other applications see Gold NanoShells being used in photothermal therapy whilst also carrying a chemotherapeutic drug. Thus when the Gold NanoShells are heated a drug is also released, providing a secondary measure to insure eradication of the cancerous cells.
This research has been underway for over a decade now, and companies such as Nanospectra Biosciences (who explain Gold NanoShells with a great video via that link) are currently partaking in rounds of clinical trials (e.g. testing against patients).
So watch this space…cancer’s future could be golden.