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Nanotechnology Poised to Revolutionize Cancer Diagnosis and Treatment

At the Podium – June 2006


By Samuel Wickline, MD

In the early 1900s, Nobel Prize winner Paul Ehrlich sought compounds that would be specifically attracted to and kill disease-causing organisms with no harmful effect on the body. Ehrlich’s vision of a “magic bullet” exists today, and it is known as nanomedicine.

This promising field of research involves nanoparticles – extremely small, bead-shaped carriers of medicinal agents. Although a few thousand times smaller than the dot above this “i,” each of these nanoparticles is capable of carrying on its surface a wide variety of homing, imaging and therapeutic agents. The tiny spheres can travel through the bloodstream deep into the body to provide more accurate visualization and characterization of tumors, revealing even tiny tumors missed by conventional medical scans. They can direct chemotherapeutic drugs specifically to tumor sites and minimize unpleasant or risky side effects. And they offer more precise adaptation of treatment to the biochemical and molecular features of each patient’s disease.

As we enter an era of precisely targeted and individualized cancer therapy, there is no doubt nanotechnology is going to have an affect on the practice of medicine. Eventually, a single injection of nanoparticles may replace numerous medical tests, scans or other therapies.

Researchers at Washington University School of Medicine – including colleagues such as Gregory Lanza, MD, PhD – have conducted nanomedicine research on cancer for a number of years. To advance this promising technology, the National Cancer Institute (NCI) recently awarded the School of Medicine $16 million over five years to establish the Siteman Center of Cancer Nanotechnology Excellence (SCCNE). The SCCNE represents a collaboration among many researchers in various departments at Washington University, including Stuart Solin, PhD, professor of physics, and David Sept, PhD, assistant professor of biomedical engineering; the Alvin J. Siteman Cancer Center; the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign; several private sector companies, including Kereos Inc.; and large multinational corporations, including Philips Medical Systems.

One of eight such centers in the United States, the SCCNE has an overarching goal of creating a comprehensive regional resource for basic science and translational nanotechnology cancer research in an environment that fosters integration among the physical, biological and clinical sciences. It truly is an interdisciplinary effort to move this research forward.

In addition to developing general oncology applications, the SCCNE will focus its efforts on solid tumors such as breast and prostate cancer. Some projects planned for the center include targeting multiple tumors for early detection of cancer; developing a nanoparticle-based contrast agent for ultrasound imaging and therapy of tumors; developing statistical tools to model the behavior of nanoparticles in the body; and building novel nanoscale sensors for rapidly screening potential anti-cancer drugs in single cells.

Of particular interest and importance is the grant’s forward-thinking goal of ensuring these technologies and medicines reach the clinical trial stage rather than remaining as academic ideas. It is a milestone-driven grant, which means getting our concepts to patients as quickly as possible in order to improve cancer outcomes. This mirrors the goal of Washington University’s BioMed 21, a $300 million translational research initiative to speed the transfer of laboratory advances to medical treatments.

The rapid “bench-to-bedside” aspect of the NCI grant results in another of its mandatory features, and that is collaborations with commercial partners. With a complex form of therapy like nanotechnology, it is imperative for academic institutions to forge close ties with industrial and pharmaceutical partners – it is just too expensive for an academic center to fully develop such new treatment approaches alone.

For all of its impressive science and technology, however, in the end nanomedicine is about our patients. For them, nanoparticles will increase the accuracy of treatment by delivering drugs directly to a disease site without harmful side effects to other tissues. The imaging agents attached to nanoparticles have the potential of “lighting up” cancer cells at the earliest stages, when treatment may be most effective. And when used in diagnostic testing, nanoparticles may one day reveal the proportions of different biomarkers and indicate the very molecular nature of a disease – for example, by foretelling how aggressive a cancer is likely to become.

There is no doubt nanomedicine represents Paul Ehrlich’s “magic bullet.” Nanoparticles may be very small, but they are destined to lead to a powerful explosion of medical advances.

Sam Wickline

Samuel Wickline, MD, is director of the Siteman Center of Cancer Nanotechnology Excellence and professor of medicine, biomedical engineering, physics and cellular biology at Washington University School of Medicine.