Modern science and medicine have made vast leaps forward towards the prevention and cure of hundreds of diseases. For decades now, cancer has managed to resist scientists’ best efforts. Treating cancer is like the old saying ‘out of the frying pan and into the fire’. It is a catch-22. Radiation and chemotherapy kill cancer cells, but also destroy any other cells with which they come in contact. Both methods are far too broad to target the cancer cells without harming the rest of the body. Nanotechnology, a bourgeoning scientific field, could change everything in the field of cancer research.
In recent years, research has made headway into shrinking technology down to microscopic size. Known as nanotechnology, it is the science of building things at an atomic or molecular level. Applied to medicine, specifically cancer treatment research, nanotechnology has yielded new cancer treatments. On March 6, 2007, researchers headed by Sally DeNardo, at the University of California at Davis announced that they had developed nanoprobes capable of slowing cancer growth, or even killing the malignant cells without harming the surrounding tissue. They created nanoprobes, made from iron oxide and coated in sugars and polymers, which serve as a sort of stealth system to avoid being detected and destroyed by the body’s immune system. These nanoprobes seek out cancerous cells and attach to them. Once they have latched onto their target, a magnetic field is applied to the cancerous region, causing the iron oxide to heat up and kill cancer cells while sparing the surrounding tissue. They conducted initial testing on lab rats with aggressive breast cancer cells and found that the treatment is in fact effective in slowing the growth of the cancer, or even killing it. While this treatment is still in the experimental phase, researchers are hoping that it could soon be used to cure cancer in humans.
Another scientist, Dr. James Baker, of the University of Michigan, has been working on a somewhat different approach to fight cancer. He has developed a nanoprobe capable of targeting cancer cells and administering cancer drugs directly into the tumor. His system uses a nanoprobe covered in tiny hooks. By placing a small amount of folic acid onto a few of the hooks it is likely to be absorbed into the cancerous mass, since cancer cells have more protein receptors than normal cells. The cancer medicine itself is placed on the rest of the hooks and trillions of these nanoprobes are injected into the body. The cancer cells absorb the nanoprobes and can release the medicine without risk to the rest of the body. This treatment remains in testing as well, however, hopefully soon these and other breakthroughs will increase the effectiveness of cancer medicine, while decreasing the risks associated with it.
As science continues to push forward, we manage to create more and more advanced and precise methods of treating illnesses, especially cancer. New breakthroughs in the field of nanomedicine are made on an almost daily basis. While these discoveries are still years from full-scale use, they bring us closer to one day finding a cure for the world’s deadliest disease.