Nanomedicine in Cancer

Cancer is one of the main causes of mortality worldwide and accounted for 7.6 million deaths (around 13 % of all deaths) in 2008. In the Western World and in the US, cancer represents the second leading cause of death after heart-attack. Emerging countries are facing more and more the increase of cancer incidence which represents 60% of the death in those countries.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), there will be 15 million new cases of cancer worldwide in 2020. More than 90% of cancer-related deaths occur by the spread of malignant cells to vital organs, a process called metastasisAcademia, Pharmaceutical and biotechnology companies are making substantial research investments in order to develop specific treatments that can destroy primary and secondary tumors, i.e. those resulting from metastasis to other organs.

Nanotechnology in cancer treatments is already a reality providing a wide range of new tools and possibilities, from earlier diagnostics and improved imaging to better, more efficient, and more targeted therapies.

Nanomedicine for early diagnosis of cancers

Cancer biomarkers are indicators produced by tumor cells spreading in the body and are commonly used in cancer detection. However they are present in too low concentrations to be efficiently detected in early phases. However the targeted delivery of specific nanoparticles into the tumor can induce a local interaction with cancer cells and forces them to significantly increase the production of these biomarkers.

Biomarkers detection becomes thus much easier and can provide an earlier diagnosis to doctors than biopsies. Early detections of cancers allow early and less burdensome treatments, increasing also the chances of recovery.

Nanomedicine for accurate cancer imaging

Iron oxide nanoparticles are one useful tool against cancer because, when “nano”-engineered with a specific coating, they bind particularly well to the tumors.Their magnetic properties make them suitable imaging agentswith MRI-scans while their size and concentration in the tumor allow a very high resolution and an accurate mapping of lesions. Surgeons can thus rely on this to select properly patients and plan the surgical removal of the tumor.

Nanomedicine for cancer therapy and drug delivery

In therapy, nanotechnology is at the forefront of both targeted drug delivery and intrinsic therapies. For instance, nanoparticles can already be injected into the tumor and then be activated to produce heat and destroy cancer cells locally either by magnetic fields, X-Rays or light. Meanwhile the encapsulation of existing chemotherapy drugs or genes allows much more localized delivery both reducing significantly the quantity of drugs absorbed by the patient for equal impact and the side effects on healthy tissues in the body.

Coupling both modes of action has also been achieved with gold nanorods carrying chemotherapy drugs and locally excited in the tumor by infrared light. The induced heat both releases the encapsulated drug and helps destroying the cancer cells, resulting in a combined effect of enhanced delivery and intrinsic therapy.