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The potential of nanomedicine

What if nanoparticles could carry cancer-killing drugs directly to tumor sites?

By Mary Loftus

Story Photo

Lily Yang. Photography by Jack Kearse

Chemotherapy and radiation are clearly broad sweeps, killing cancer cells at a high cost to healthy cells.

But what if a nanoparticle could carry a drug directly to the tumor site, work around any obstacles, and bind to the cancer cells—and only the cancer cells— before dispensing its medication?

Targeted, multifunctional nanoparticles are a reality, although they have only been tested using tumor cells and tissues from human patients in mice so far. Ideally, the nanoparticle could serve multiple roles, delivering imaging agents and medications and allowing the monitoring of treatment response. "Only a nanoparticle can deliver two drugs together to the same tumor cell at the same time, which offers an opportunity to kill drug-resistant tumor cells," says Lily Yang, professor of surgery and the Nancy Panoz Chair of Surgery in Cancer Research.

Nanomedicine uses particles as small as antibodies or viruses to create molecular imaging probes and drug-carriers for in vivo delivery. Imaging with nanoparticles may help expose cancer before health has deteriorated, says Yang, and could help guide surgeons in their efforts to detect, treat, and remove tumors.

Yang has worked with Shuming Nie, of the Coulter Department of Biomedical Engineering at Emory and Georgia Tech, and radiologist Hui Mao, on the use of nanoparticles to illuminate tumor boundaries and cancer cells.

As a translational researcher with the Winship Cancer Institute, Yang’s research focuses on developing multifunctional, tumor-targeting nanoparticles. Yang and colleagues have developed a magnetic iron oxide nanoparticle platform for molecular tumor imaging and targeted cancer therapy that is able to detect primary and metastatic tumors in breast, pancreatic, and ovarian cancers in animal models. Using such a specific targeting mechanism allows the detection of cancer cells that have spread from the tumor but are still too small to be visible. "Personalized therapy is necessary for effective cancer treatment," Yang says. "And nanoparticles offer one of the best chances we have for truly personalized therapy."

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