Imagine a tiny tennis ball, a ball so small it’s just one-hundred-thousandth the width of a strand of human hair. Then imagine you could put anti-cancer drugs inside that ball, and the ball could then selectively hunt down and attack cancers inside the body.
The ball is coated in a smart protective armour that not only ensures it survives the rigours of travel through the human body, but also guides the ball past normal healthy cells into the unwanted cancer cells - like a Trojan horse.
Read more: Cage Fighting with Neuroblastoma
Best of all, once these tiny drug delivery balls have done their job, once the cancer has been neutralised or destroyed, there is less resulting damage to the body, compared to today’s cancer therapies.
Welcome to the wonderful, miniaturised world of cancer nanomedicine. And if you think it’s all science fiction, you’ll have to think again.
“It’s a massive challenge to target drugs inside a patient’s body. Sadly, this means chemotherapy has to be extremely harsh when treating many cancers,” says Dr Andrew Care, a Cancer Institute NSW Early-career Research Fellow at Macquarie University.
“Nanomedicine has the potential to deliver drugs exactly where they need to be, reducing the need for high drug doses and eliminating nasty side effects in patients,” he says.
Andrew and his team are creatively combining the scientific fields of synthetic biology and nanomedicine, producing some very exciting results, particularly in creating new nanotechnologies that may help deliver drugs inside the body.
Could copper be the key to treating neuroblastoma?
Neuroblastoma is the most common solid tumour in early childhood.
Despite aggressive treatments, including high-dose chemotherapy, the prognosis remains poor for many children, with neuroblastomas accounting for about 15 per cent of paediatric cancer deaths worldwide.
For those children who survive, severe lifelong side effects are often present, including motor, cognitive and psychosocial impairments that reduce their emotional well-being and social integration. Thus, more effective treatments for this condition are critical.
One such treatment, Andrew believes, will involve copper.
“Copper is essential to all life,” he explains. “We need copper to survive, but so do a number of cancers."
“My collaborator Dr Orazio Vittorio, a cancer biologist at the Children’s Cancer Institute, has shown that neuroblastoma cells contain higher levels of copper than normal, healthy cells.”
“Neuroblastoma uses all of this copper to help it grow faster and spread more aggressively throughout the body. Therefore, copper could be the key to treating this childhood cancer.”
Changing the amounts of copper found inside neuroblastoma cells could stop their growth and even kill them, Andrew says.
He and his colleagues are proposing the development of a new nanotechnology that delivers more copper into these already copper-rich cancer cells.
“This will overwhelm them with copper so the cancer cells will become stressed, malfunction and die,” he explains. “I guess you could say we’ll be giving them too much of a good thing.”
Andrew, through his research, is repurposing tiny nanoparticles found inside many living bacteria. Using genetic engineering, he and his colleagues modify these bacterial nanoparticles to have new, non-natural functions. They re-program them to do something very different from their jobs in nature.
“We have already re-engineered these particles to draw in copper, allowing us to load them up with this metal,” he says, describing the already patented part of the process. “We’re currently modifying these nanoparticles further, so they can target and overload cancer cells with copper, while leaving healthy cells unharmed.”
Cage fighting against cancer
The more technical name for these bacteria-derived nanoparticles is ‘protein nanocages’. Hence, Andrew often refers to this project as ‘cage-fighting with neuroblastoma’.
“I think science should be accessible to all. The clearer and more relatable you can make it, the better for everyone,” he smiles. “And I can’t spell long words!”
Funding of such research, Andrew says, is “absolutely transformative”. The fact that The Kids’ Cancer Project is offering financial support to this research means so much more will be possible in terms of advancing the protein nanocage technology and generating future therapies, he believes.
“I’m an early-career researcher, so this funding makes a very big difference,” he says. “It’ll go towards vital personnel and resources, allowing us to conduct important experimental work over the next two years. Without funds we wouldn’t be able to progress this project much at all.”
As a young researcher, Andrew says, it can be hard to have early-stage research programs funded by the major, Government funders of research, such as the NHMRC and the ARC.
“They’re understandably focussed on funding well-established research teams with proven track records,” he says. “But charities like The Kids’ Cancer Project are providing younger scientists with the chance to give blue-sky and potentially ground-breaking projects a real go. Opportunities like this foster the next generation of researchers.”
Speaking of ground-breaking, Andrew’s team is looking at a number of different applications for their nanocage technology.
“One application we’ve explored is light-activated cancer therapy,” he says. “Basically, we engineered a new nanocage and sent it into cancer cells. We then turned the nanocage on with light, activating it to harm the cells. We think it’s an exciting advancement for protein nanocages as tools for cancer nanomedicine, and we’ll be publishing our results, soon.”
“As scientists, we want to create new technologies that help patients in need. All research has its challenges, but it’s rewarding when things work out. The added bonus is that along the way we tend to have a lot of fun doing the research!”