Scientific advances bring about constant improvements to modern life: supersonic jets can fly at five times the speed of sound, information can be transmitted around the world nearly instantaneously, and splitting the atom is last century’s news. It’s hard to believe, then, that advances in cancer treatment have evolved at, seemingly, a snail’s pace.
One of the most critical problems in the development of effective cancer treatments is the destruction of healthy tissues that results from using chemotherapy to destroy tumors.
Chemo doesn’t differentiate between tumor cells and healthy surrounding tissues’ cells…until now.
Nicolas Voelcker of the University of South Australia led a team of Australian and German researchers in developing a new kind of nanotechnology that would ensure the delivery of chemotherapy to tumor cells, and only to tumor cells. By genetically engineering diatom algae -single-celled, photosynthetic organisms- researchers were able to create a diatom that would only bind with antibodies. This guaranteed the diatoms would not bind with healthy cells. By hiding the chemotherapy in packets inside of these specific diatoms, only the tumor cells would be exposed to the treatment, leaving the healthy surrounding cells to thrive.
Nanotechnology has long been expected to play a key role in the evolution of targeted therapy for cancer: treatment, that is, that zeroes in on tumor cells without disrupting healthy surrounding cells. Developments thus far have shown some promise, but have all been created using artificial means of delivery.
The cost of engineering these systems is enormous, and not only financially: the utilization of industrial chemicals such as hydrofluoric acid makes these artificial treatments toxic both to the patients receiving the therapy and the environment. Artificially-derived therapies have, therefore, fallen considerably short of the expectations of nanotechnology for targeted cancer therapy.
This is where the algae studies could prove revolutionary. The single-celled organisms are biodegradable and nontoxic to both humans and the environment. Once the delivery of the chemotherapy is completed, the diatoms simply dissolve harmlessly into the human body.
“Although it is still early days, this novel drug delivery system based on a biotechnologically tailored, renewable material holds a lot of potential for the therapy of solid tumours including currently untreatable brain tumours,” Voelcker said. The initial studies have shown that the diatom-delivered chemo kills up to 90 percent of cancer cells while surrounding healthy tissues are unaffected.