Continuous progress in nanotechnology is opening many doors across numerous medical disciplines. One of the latest nanotech cancer research, led by doctor Duxin Sun and his lab at the University of Michigan College of Pharmacy, focuses on nanomedicine and drug delivery for cancer immunotherapy.
Nanotechnology was first introduced in the 1970s and it refers to technological and scientific phenomena taking place at dimensions in the nanometre scale, which is one-billionth of a metre. Nanomedicine is a branch of medicine that integrates the fundamentals of nanotechnology with medical diagnostic and treatment methods. Scientists and researchers utilize nanomedicine to make various drugs, treatments, and vaccines.
Anticancer nanomedicines work in a unique way by increasing drug accumulation in tumours while also reducing drug accumulation in healthy organs, improving efficacy, and reducing toxicity.
Over the past 20 years, Sun and his team have solidified their research using a new technique to improve anticancer effectiveness. This technique focuses on assessing the movement of drugs with respect to the nanocarriers, which is a transport module, within the body and understanding how they alter the drug disposition in the targeted organs. The technique also analyzes the microenvironment surrounding the various types of cells such as endothelial cells, stromal cells, or immune cells.
“Using this strategy, we developed a treatment that was able to achieve full remission in mice with metastatic breast cancer,” Sun said.
Sun’s success not only sets up a solid foundation for the future of nanomedicine and cancer immunotherapy, but also means potentially finding a cure for metastatic breast cancer, which claims 40,000 lives annually. The new treatment focuses on triple-negative breast cancer, which has a high potential to metastasize, which means that it can spread to other parts of the body. Because this cancer suppresses the immune system, it responds poorly to traditional immunotherapy and chemotherapy.
Sun’s research team also worked on examining the efficiency of existing nanoparticle-based cancer drugs. Sun’s method was different from previously established treatments, as it focused on nanoparticle-based immunotherapy rather than [briefly explain what was used before].
The process involves organic nanoparticles made of albumin (a common protein) to deliver the medication directly to the location of immune-suppressing cells. Although this treatment shares the same concept of using nanoparticles as a delivery system, it includes the consideration of immunotherapy.
“We’re hopeful it will eventually translate from animal models to cancer patients,” Sun said.
The use of nanoparticles in medicine has been beneficial beyond just cancer treatment, such as with the recent COVID-19 pandemic. Nanoparticles play a crucial role in COVID-19 mRNA vaccines, as mRNA degrades within the body’s natural chemical environment. Lipid nanoparticles are used to encapsulate the mRNA, thereby ensuring it is safely delivered. The combination of nanotechnology with medicine allowed for the development of a vaccine that was previously thought to be unfeasible.
The vaccine owned by Pfizer was not only 95 per cent effective but was also given authorization from the FDA in record time. Nanoparticles were also being used in vaccine research before the pandemic as well — BioNtech currently has an mRNA vaccine in phase two of their clinical trials for the treatment of cancer, after studying cancer treatment for two decades.
Although vaccines for infectious diseases are quite different from vaccines for cancer treatment due to many factors such as inoculation methods, this research not only exhilarates the spirits of scientists and researchers but also prompts talks about a potential cancer vaccine.
Juewen Liu, a UW professor and researcher in the fields of nanotechnology and biology thought of the study led by the Sun group as a beautiful example of cancer research.
“Using biologically derived nanomaterials such as lipids and proteins to deliver drugs is likely to have a higher chance of success due to better biocompatibility and lower toxicity of the delivery vehicles,” Liu said.