US researcher tests nanoballoons for anti-cancer applications

Aims to improve cancer treatment by delivering highly concentrated doses of chemotherapeutic drugs to cancer cells

Winner of an NIH Early Independence Award, Jonathan Lovell likens a nanoballoon to a submarine carrying a cargo of anti-cancer drugs

A new nanotechnology study by Jonathan Lovell, Assistant Professor of Biomedical Engineering at the University of Buffalo in the US, will refine a drug delivery method using nanoballoons, also known as liposomes.

Lovell's goal is to improve cancer treatment by delivering highly concentrated doses of chemotherapeutic drugs directly to cancerous cells.

'Nanoballoons are tiny submarine-like vessels that, when struck by a laser, can deliver super-concentrated doses of chemotherapeutic drugs to cancer cells,' he says.

Lovell has already proved the concept in vitro and plans to test it in animals in about 12 months' time. Human trials could start within five years.

He received US$1.9m from the US National Institutes of Health for his five-year project in one of 15 Early Independence Awards granted nationally for high-risk, high-reward research.

The drug-carrying nanoballoons are made of the organic compound porphyrin and phospholipid, a fat similar to vegetable oil.

Nanoballoons are tiny submarine-like vessels that, when struck by a laser, can deliver super-concentrated doses of chemotherapeutic drugs to cancer cells

When the nanoballoons reach cancer cells, Lovell explains, they can be popped open with a red laser, releasing the drugs directly at the cancer site. When the laser is turned off, the nanoballoons close, taking in proteins and molecules that might induce cancer growth and metastasis. After treatment, the nanoballoons could simply be retrieved from the body through a blood sample or biopsy.

Chemotherapeutic drugs, such as doxorubicin and epirubicin, are now typically delivered intravenously and are usually diluted by the time they reach cancer cells. As the drugs travel through the body, they interact with bone marrow, blood and other body systems, often leading to immunosuppression, anaemia, hair loss and other unwanted consequences of treatment.

With its pinpoint delivery mechanism, the nanotechnology could allow drugs to be more effective. Simultaneously, encapsulating the drugs in nanobubbles could reduce side effects.

The nanotechnology also provides a 'chemical snapshot' of the tumour’s environment, which otherwise would be very difficult to assess, Lovell says. This could provide a better understanding of the disease itself.

'NIH support for this project recognises the University of Buffalo’s commitment to develop a 'world-class, cross-disciplinary biomedical research community focused on tackling complex medical and scientific issues,' says Michael Cain, Vice President for Health Sciences and Dean of the School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences.

'Biomedical engineering promises not only to address pressing issues that affect our quality of life but also underpin the region’s dynamic medical devices economy,' he says.