The National Cancer Institute, which recently announced two waves of funding for nanotech training and research, sees nanotechnology as vital to its stated goal of "eliminating suffering and death from cancer by 2015." Nanotech gives us the opportunity to detect cancer tumors at 1,000 cells, whereas we're now seeing them at 1 million cells. By the time you detect some cancers today, there's no option of curing them, only of prolonging life," said Sri Sridhar, director of Northeastern University's Nanomedicine Science and Technology Program. One such application involves metallic molecules that adhere to cancer cells and can then be heated with microwaves, a magnetic field or infrared light, destroying the tumor while leaving surrounding tissues unharmed. Researchers at Rice University have done just this with gold-coated particles and breast cancer tissue cultures.
We've become very good at building nanoparticles decorated with biological particles, from DNA to proteins," said Bob Langer, a professor of chemical and biochemical engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Researchers are trying to create multi-function particles that detect and treat suspected cancer areas.
No less important is nanotechnology's possible use in collecting information about molecular processes. Combined with information about how cells and tissues interact, this could produce detailed digital models of cancer.
"We want to have quantitative computer simulations that will actually predict how a tumor will evolve in a patient," said Vito Quaranta, a cancer biology professor at Vanderbilt University's Integrative Cancer Biology Center. "One of the major problems today is that we're not capable of knowing to what extent and when a particular cancer will be invasive -- when it will spread from prostate to bone, lung to brain. It's the invasion that kills."
Physicians could use this knowledge to guide their treatment. Moreover, said Quaranta, they might even be able to predict a therapy's outcome by simulating how it would modify the tumor over time, perhaps even looking years into the future.
How soon these cancer nanotechnologies will be commercially available is hard to guess. Though the NCI's Cancer Nanotechnology Plan calls for clinical trials on out-of-body applications within three years, and trials on in-body therapies and diagnostics within five years, researchers are cautious about promising too much.
Although there are concerns about toxicity...since the goal is treat cancer and patients are often likely to die with current ineffective treatments...new treatments could be expedited to market.