The ability to take our knowledge of the biochemistry of cancer cells and adequately translate them into effective treatment methods has long been the goal of oncologists around the world. Over the years, we’ve seen numerous new techniques heralded by some as the breakthrough to treat this awful disease. The latest idea to emerge – the usage of gold nanoparticles to ‘explode’ cancerous cells from the inside out might be tempting to dismiss as pure science fiction; however, if the scientists at Rice University in Houston are to be believed, this technology may in fact have a revolutionary impact on the way we deal with cancer.
Whilst not entirely replacing the current and traditional treatment options such as chemotherapy and radiotherapy, the researches feel that this gold nanoparticle technology may be useful in complimenting current techniques as part of a four pronged attack mechanism called quadrepeutic therapy – the other stages being the above methods as well as laser technology, as part of a better overall strategy for the treatment of cancer. Rather promisingly, it was found that the use of these gold particles removed chemotherapy resistant squamous cancer cells in studies on mice, although much more work is still to be done until human trials can begin.
The way that this technology works is fairly simple to understand. Gold particles are used to create a capsule, inside which drug molecules such as the proto-drug Targretin (which is not activated until the desired moment.). These gold particles are then taken in by cancerous cells. The cancer cells are targeted by using antibodies specific to the surfaces of the cancer cells, allowing the drug to reach only its desired destination. (Although studies have shown that normal cells are also effected – and such it is not a 100% foolproof mechanism.)
Once inside the cancer cells, the target drug can either act on its own, as part of chemotherapy. Alternatively, the gold particles can be ‘activated’ using near infra-red wavelengths of light. These wavelengths of lights cannot be directly absorbed by the gold particles, but instead are absorbed by the electrons. This causes them to generate large amounts of energy, which can build up as heat, until finally the cancerous cell literally explodes from the inside out! The latest studies suggest up to a 100fold increase in the effectiveness of this treatment when included as part of a typical cancer treatment process in the mice.
We should not necessarily be too keen to praise this work however, as there are a number of issues that need to be addressed before human trials can begin (which it is estimated will take at least two years minimum to commence.) Chiefly, there is a lot of concern within the scientific community about the reliability of the results – indeed, many peer reviews have expressed concern that the data supporting the work of the researches simply doesn’t add up. Regardless of whether or not the data supports the conclusions made, should this technique ever come to fruition, there are a number of other scientific challenges.
The largest of these is the impact on surrounding cells. Studies have shown that these Nano engineered gold particles are still taken up by the surrounding cells to the cancer site. This might not necessarily be an issue if you are dealing with tissue areas such as the liver, that could conceivably cope with the loss of some cell mass. However, for more delicate areas, such as the brain, loss of surrounding cells could have a critical effect on the health of the patient.
Furthermore, this treatment method will not on its own solve the problem of cancer. It is intended simply as a supplement to existing methods. On its own it cannot remove a tumour entirely. Chemotherapy and radiotherapy will probably remain the preferred methods of treatment, at least in the short term.
Gold Nanotechnologies, as well as nanotechnology in general, offer a lot of hope for the future of medicine. In the future it is entirely possible that we may experience much more personalised medicine focusing on the use of these techniques to specifically meet the needs of individual patients. The future of medicine is certainly bright, but we must be cautious – there is still a long way to go, and a lot to learn. Despite this, we can at least hope, because, following US President Barack Obama’s declaration of a new national effort to cure cancer, the tools required to do such a thing are at last in touching distance. Stay tuned, because oncology is about to get interesting!
The below video gives a good introduction to the technology of gold nanotech; https://www.youtube.com/watch?time_continue=126&v=_pgH6YMby3M