We're hearing a lot these days about the potential use of nanotechnology in oncology as well as other medical specialties. I was unfamiliar with the word until about four years ago when I saw a poster, proudly presented by a team of residents from the Mt. Sinai Medical Center, at a meeting I was covering.
Frankly, I had trouble understanding the poster and I had even more trouble understanding it after one of the researchers, bursting with enthusiasm, tried to explain it to me. He talked really fast and assumed I knew a lot more than I did. A science whiz I am not. (I'm still amazed by the invention of radio.)
So basically, all I've heretofore managed to glean about nanotechnology is that it has something to do with really tiny particles. When I say tiny, I mean tiny as in one billionth of a meter, or put another way, "some 2,500 times smaller than the width of a human hair." That description comes courtesy of Nicole Steinmetz, PhD, a biotechnology professor at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland.
Steinmetz has been involved in some promising preclinical nanotechnology research that bodes well for future use in treating cancer. What's more, she is aware that her work is not easy for a lot of people to understand. She told an interviewer for the student newspaper at Case that she wants to "erase the intimidation" that surrounds research like hers and present it in a way that engages and encourages students to get involved.
Toward that end, she helped create "The Nanoman," described as "part Pac-Man, part science lesson," in a video that explains basic principles of drug delivery and nanomedicine "in a format everyone can understand and appreciate -- especially the core audience of students, ranging from grades K-12" (not to mention clueless medical journalists).
So now I understand better how the same virus that can level a potato crop (potato virus X) may one day end up being used against cancer in humans. Viral nanoparticles (VNPs) can be lethal to plants but are entirely nontoxic for people.
Steinmetz and her team are conducting preclinical studies using VNPs from plant viruses to determine which are more successful at targeting tumors. Researchers load the nanoparticles with medication and add targeting ligands to direct them to the cells marked for destruction.
In a study published in Molecular Pharmaceutics they reported (among other things) that VNPs of potato virus X demonstrated enhanced abilities in homing to and penetrating tumors compared with nanoparticles of cowpea mosaic virus.
"We aim to take highly potent drugs -- not new drugs, necessarily, but ones that already are FDA-approved -- and put them inside a nanoparticle that will deliver them only to the tumor," Steinmetz explains. VNPs are well suited to deliver cancer drugs because they can hold a full "payload" of medication, says Steinmetz. Moreover, they can be designed to bond only to the cancer cells and not healthy surrounding cells, and unlike synthetic delivery systems they're easily and cheaply produced using molecular plant-farming methods. "There's only so much research I can do in a lifetime," notes Steinmetz, so I'm relying on nature for what it already does best. Viruses have evolved over millions of years to carry cargos to specific cells and tissues."
The viruses have promise in a broad range of biomedical applications, including improved imaging methods and vaccines, as well as drug-delivery systems. Extensive additional preclinical research remains to be done, however, before VNPs will be studied in human trials. Meanwhile, if you are still befuddled by the complexity of nanotechnology, The Nanoman is there to help.
"The Nanoman is the start of a multimedia outreach program I am developing in parallel to my research program," says Steinmetz. "Nanomedicine has become a clinical reality, so it is important that we communicate it."
- Steinmetz NF. Viral nanoparticles in drug delivery and imaging. Mol Pharm. 2013 Jan 7;10(1):1-2.
- The Daily