Can Setting Off Nano Explosions Within the Body Kill Cancer Cells?

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A cutting-edge approach to cancer care using nanoparticles as explosive devices may provide an entirely new way to treat the disease.

Research led by Dmitri Lapotko, a physicist and head of laser science at Masimo Corporation, taps into elements of biology and physics to approach cancer treatment on a miniscule scale — far smaller than the size of cancer cells.

This image depicts the death of cancer cells. Credit: Susan Arnold/Wikimedia Commons

Exploiting the body’s cellular and immune functioning, the treatment method uses gold nanoparticles that can work their way into cancer cells through a process known as endocytosis. After the nanoparticles cluster in individual cancer cells, the researchers zap them with a laser, causing the particles to heat up in a reaction that “tears the cancer cell apart in an instantaneous explosion.”

In animal studies conducted on mice so far, the therapeutic model has proven extremely successful, with minimal side effects.

“The nature of this explosion is intracellular so the surrounding healthy cells or important organs are not damaged,” Lapotko told The Guardian. “A cell residue is left but this cannot reassemble into new cancer cells. It’s very safe as the energy of the laser pulse required is a million times lower than the laser energy used in some surgeries.”

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When the nanoparticles rise in temperature, they create what the researchers call a “plasmonic bubble.” When inside the cancer cell, this plasmonic bubble expands with heat and then collapses in on itself, destroying the cancer cell along the way.

This pinpoint approach gives hope that scientists and physicians can not only detect the earliest stages of cancer but also do something about it.

“One of the biggest problems in cancer treatment is that we cannot detect micro tumors at the earliest stage and we often would not be able to remove them surgically without damaging nearby important cells and organs,” said Lapotko. “Currently, the minimal detectable tumors are already several millimeters big and by then the disease has developed.”

This illustration shows how the drug targets cancer cells and engulfs them in bubbles that explode. Credit: Higher Learning/Wordpress

By tapping into the body’s cellular functioning, the nanoparticle method can act in a way that doesn’t promote a defensive response from fast-growing cancer cells.

“I decided to base my approach on a way to detect and explode the cancer cell mechanically, something it cannot resist through its biological tricks. If you do this, there’s no biological way it can reassemble, revive or metastasize,” Lapotko told The Guardian.

The researchers say that they can feasibly deliver the nanoparticles before surgery to help improve clinical outcomes, as well as after surgery to destroy any cancer cells that may have been left behind.  The progress so far, which has resulted in zero-percent cancer growth in animals that also had surgery, appears promising.

“A lot of the time what is done in the world of medicine on a mouse, doesn’t work on a monkey never mind a human but the early results look great,” Masimo Chief Executive and Founder Joe Kiani told The Guardian. “If it all works, we’re probably four years away from a product. But if it all works, it could be a game changer.”

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Richard Scott

Richard Scott is a health care reporter focusing on health policy and public health. Richard keeps tabs on national health trends from his Philadelphia location and is an active member of the Association of Health Care Journalists.