Tricking Cancer Cells Into Eating Poison

Cancer cells engulf ligands containing chemotherapy nanoparticles

/ Author:  / Reviewed by: Joseph V. Madia, MD

(RxWiki News) Cancer cells are picky eaters. They don't open wide for just any molecule that comes along. No, they're too cunning for that. But scientists have found a way to outsmart these little monsters so they go gaga for what will kill them.

Researchers have developed a novel method of delivering large quantities of chemotherapy directly to prostate cancer cells.

The method utilizes nanoparticles which hitch a ride on molecules that cancer cells happily gobble up.

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Omid Farokhzad, M.D., of the Brigham and Women's Hospital (BWH) Department of Anesthesiology Perioperative and Pain Medicine and Research, teamed up with researchers at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and Massachusetts General Hospital to find a way to create a better cancer drug delivery system.

This research could be likened to building a car with all the latest bells and whistles. The passenger in this whiz-bang vehicle is the cancer drug, and the car's destination is the cancer cell.

For the first step in designing this vehicle, researchers carefully selected ligands - molecules that bind to the surface of a cell. These ligands were chosen because they could go after and latch onto prostate cancer cells. Next, nanoparticles containing chemotherapy drugs were attached to these ligands.

It's important to understand that the ligands chosen for this mission were extremely smart and versatile. First, they are able to tell the difference between cancerous and healthy cells. Secondly, the researchers designed them to be appetizing to cancer cells that are eager to swallow them.

Dr. Farokhzad explained, "Most ligands are engulfed by cells, but not efficiently. We designed one that is intended to be engulfed."

That the cancer cells happily swallow these ligands means that more chemotherapy enters the cell, so the drug can work more efficiently and effectively.

This vehicle can also interact with a variety of cancer markers on the cell surface, making it more versatile and potentially useful against different types of cancers.

Lead study author, Zeyu Xiao, Ph.D., a researcher in the BWH Laboratory of Nanomedicine and Biomaterials, says existing use of nanoparticles in cancer therapy involves using ligands that target well-known cancer markers.

But these methods are difficult to implement since most cancer cells don't have easily identified surface markers. 

"In this study, we developed a unique strategy that enables the nanoparticles to specifically target and efficiently be engulfed into any desired types and sub-types of cancer cells, even if their cancer markers are unknown," Xiao said.

This research was published online in the January 3, 2012 issue of ACS Nano.

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Review Date: 
January 10, 2012
Last Updated:
January 10, 2012