With the rates of several cancers still climbing, science is having to look at new and inventive ways to fight back. Now researchers, harnessing nanotechnology, have hit on one clever way: sticky balls.
When caught early, cancer is usually highly treatable. However, when cancer begins to spread or metastasize, treatment is much more difficult and can often be ineffective. There is significant scientific interest, then, in trying to find treatments that can prevent cancer progressing to this stage. Researchers at Cornell University, of Ithaca, New York, think they have found a way to do just that and stop cancer spreading through the body.
The novel approach saw scientists first take a protein that is already known as an effective cancer killer, called TRAIL, and then attaching this to nanoparticles with another so-called “sticky” protein. These “sticky balls” were then injected into blood samples.
The nanoparticles were observed latching on to white blood cells, and this is where their cancer fighting properties really become interesting. Once in the blood stream, the white blood cells collide with tumor cells, meaning that the tumor cells would be directly exposed to the cancer-killing proteins.
The researchers found that the cancer killing prospects of this method are considerable and significant.
“These circulating cancer cells are doomed,” Michael King, Cornell professor of biomedical engineering and head researcher, is quoted as saying. “About 90 percent of cancer deaths are related to metastases, but now we’ve found a way to dispatch an army of killer white blood cells that cause apoptosis – the cancer cell’s own death – obliterating them from the bloodstream. When surrounded by these guys, it becomes nearly impossible for the cancer cell to escape.”
In fact, the researchers found that the method yielded a 60% success rate in killing cancer cells when the method was tried in a simple saline solution. As saline doesn’t have white blood cells, and the proteins alone were being tested, this success rate is quite impressive. When the method was then tried in flowing blood samples under laboratory settings, the success rate increased and the researchers report a near 100% eradication rate.
Before we get too carried away though, this research is a long way from being proved effective in human trials. So far, no large side-effects have been reported and the science itself remains promising. This isn’t a treatment we’ll see in the next few years, but it is a promise of what might be possible in the near future.
What Role Would this Treatment Play in Fighting Cancer?
The researchers believe this kind of treatment would be best used in combination with other cancer treatments. For instance, it is known that there is a significant risk of tumor cells spreading as surgeons operate to remove a tumor. This treatment could be used after such an operation in order to guard against the tumor spreading and to obliterate any wayward cells. In a similar way, it might also be used as a routine process in early cancer treatment to prevent cancer metastasizing while other treatments are being administered.
The research is published this week in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. For those interested in learning more, the video below describes in more detail the process the researchers went through:
Photo credit: Thinkstock.
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