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Nanotech vs. Cancer

nanocell.jpgBroadly put, there are two approaches to fighting cancers: chemotherapy, which is highly toxic to both cancerous and healthy cells; and anti-angiogenesis, which attacks cancers by cutting off their blood supply. Both have drawbacks -- chemo can kill much more than cancer cells (and against which cancer can develop resistance), anti-angiogenesis can trigger cancer survival responses such as metastasis -- and while they are in principle complementary, the very blood vessels cut off by anti-angiogenesis are those needed to apply the iterative rounds of chemotherapy.

But a new nanotechnology-based method, devised by MIT's Biological Engineering Division, manages to bring the two approaches together, resulting in a cancer treatment far more effective than anything currently in use.

"We designed the nanocell keeping these practical problems in mind," he said. Using ready-made drugs and materials, "we created a balloon within a balloon, resembling an actual cell," explains Shiladitya Sengupta, a postdoctoral associate in Sasisekharan's laboratory. [...]
The team loaded the outer membrane of the nanocell with an anti-angiogenic drug and the inner balloon with chemotherapy agents. A "stealth" surface chemistry allows the nanocells to evade the immune system, while their size (200 nanometers) makes them preferentially taken into the tumor. They are small enough to pass through tumor vessels, but too large for the pores of normal vessels.

Once the nanocell is inside the tumor, its outer membrane disintegrates, rapidly deploying the anti-angiogenic drug. The blood vessels feeding the tumor then collapse, trapping the loaded nanoparticle in the tumor, where it slowly releases the chemotherapy.

The treatment was tested on mice with cancer. Eighty percent of the treated mice lived for 65 days, compared to 20 days without treatment and 30 days with the best current therapy.

The research group reported their findings in the July 28 edition of Nature. Happily, the full text of the article is available online, along with an analysis a bit more complex than the MIT press release, but not quite as detailed as the article itself.

The Nature article goes into much more detail about the physical characteristics of the nanocell "balloon," as well as the specific medicines used for the anti-angiogenesis and chemotherapy payloads. The treatment was tested against a type of melanoma and a type of lung cancer; while relatively successful against both, the therapy worked significantly better against the melanoma. That suggests that, while the process may be a major breakthrough, the details will have to be worked out for each type of cancer for best effect.

The US National Cancer Institute has a goal of eliminating suffering and death from cancer by 2015. With developments such as this, along with other novel approaches using nanomaterials and even de-fanged HIV, that goal seems well within reach.


Listed below are links to weblogs that reference Nanotech vs. Cancer:

» Zeroing in on a cure for cancer from Chris Christner's Blog
Imagine a cancer drug that can burrow into a tumor, seal the exits and detonate a lethal dose of anti-cancer toxins, all while leaving healthy cells unscathed. MIT researchers have designed a nanoparticle to do just that. Nanotech is in the news ... [Read More]

Comments (5)


Does the National Cancer Institute's goal extend to curing cancer or just prolonging treatment, and will drug companies allow this to happen? Pharmaceutical companies make enough money from cancer (one afflicted can be counted on to pay about $1000/month to prolong their life; the same goes for AIDS, MS/Parkinson's, and other terminal illnesses). I have heard it claimed that 70% of their budgets goes to acquiring and neutralising smaller companies researching anything with the potential of threatening this business model, i.e., ensuring that we'll be dying of cancer and desperately leasing our lives back for the foreseeable future.

I don't think it's as simple as a conspiracy of big pharma that keeps us all sick just to retain desparate customers. We have to remember that rich people too also die from cancer and similar diseases. In fact cancer is really a disease of the rich. In developing countries, most children die of diseases the postindustrial world has long since conquerored.

Since cancer bites hard on the those with the best health care--they're rich enough to live long enough to see cancer--you could argue that the fat cats who run big pharma would be skewing research towards cancer cures, instead investing in cheaper drugs for the ancient scourges of the developing world.

But again, it's not that simple. Conspiratorial thinking is simply not a constructive way to think about this.

Personally I'm glad to hear of news like this. Never minds the applications of this research for cancer, think of all the ways it might apply serendipitously to many other areas of biological research, like comparative anatomy. It's good science!


Though Big Pharma are not rich people. Big Pharma are publicly-held corporations, accountable to large numbers of shareholders, most of which are investment funds looking solely for maximum profits. No individual is more than a cog in this machine. The rich people near the top who stand to die of cancer most probably cannot stop the machine from doing the most profitable thing, and keeping its business model on track, any more than anyone else can.

So it seems like you're saying that the shareholding system, capitalism and the organizations that form within it are inherently flawed.

It also seems like you're saying that government funded basic research is also flawed because it's controlled by corporate interests.

So what alternatives do you propose? Or all we all doomed?


How we measure success or failure of capitalism is CERTIANLY flawed.

from Redefining Progress:


The Genuine Progress Indicator (GPI) is a new measure of the economic well-being of the nation from 1950 to present. It broadens the conventional accounting framework to include the economic contributions of the family and community realms, and of the natural habitat, along with conventionally measured economic production.

The GPI takes into account more than twenty aspects of our economic lives that the gross domestic product (GDP) ignores. It includes estimates of the economic contribution of numerous social and environmental factors which the GDP dismisses with an implicit and arbitrary value of zero. It also differentiates between economic transactions that add to well-being and those which diminish it. The GPI then integrates these factors into a composite measure so that the benefits of economic activity can be weighed against the costs.

The GPI is intended to provide citizens and policymakers with a more accurate barometer of the overall health of the economy, and of how our national condition is changing over time.


While per capita GDP has more than doubled from 1950 to present, the GPI (Genuine Progress Indicator) shows a very different picture. It increased during the 1950s and 1960s, but has declined by roughly 45 percent since 1970. Further, the rate of decline in per capita GPI has increased from an average of 1 percent in the 1970s to 2 percent in the 1980s to 6 percent so far in the 1990s. This wide and growing divergence between the GDP and GPI is a warning that the economy is stuck on a path that imposes large -- and as yet unreckoned -- costs onto the present and the future.

Specifically, the GPI reveals that much of what economists now consider economic growth, as measured by GDP, is really one of three things: 1) fixing blunders and social decay from the past; 2) borrowing resources from the future; or 3) shifting functions from the community and household realm to that of the monetized economy. The GPI strongly suggests that the costs of the nation's current economic trajectory have begun to outweigh the benefits, leading to growth that is actually uneconomic.

If the mood of the public is any barometer at all, then it would seem that the GPI comes much closer than the GDP to portraying the economy that Americans actually experience in their daily lives. It begins to explain why people feel increasingly gloomy despite official claims of economic progress and growth.


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