Updated: 07/24/2012 10:19:58 AM MDT
By Jim Shelton
Register Staff— Yale University researchers say they’ve found a way to boost both the effectiveness of cancer drugs and the body’s own defense mechanisms through the use of tiny particles called nanogels.
“There is a promising path forward here for cancer therapy in general,” said Yale bioengineer Tarek M. Fahmy, lead researcher and author of a new paper in the journal Nature Materials.
“So much of the challenge with cancer therapy is delivery,” Fahmy explained. “How do you get the drug to a specific place, rather than dispersing it throughout the body? We’ve learned the nanogel is much more effective as a delivery package.”
Essentially, a nanogel is a particle that can be designed to carry a drug or a combination of drugs and proteins to a tumor within the human body. Because it’s constituted as a gel, it holds together longer and hangs onto more of its therapeutic cargo as it makes its way to the tumor. Once there, it slows down and deposits the drugs in a more concentrated dose than traditional methods.
In this case, the nanogel contained a drug that inhibits tumors, plus a protein – called a cytokine – that heightens the body’s immune system response. Yale researchers tested the nanogels on live mice with metastatic melanomas, which are particularly aggressive skin cancers.
Richard A. Flavell of Yale and the Howard Hughes Medical Institute collaborated with Fahmy on the project.
The researchers introduced nanogels two ways: intravenously injection and direct application to the tumor. In both instances, the nanogels delayed tumor growth and improved survival rates.
Human tests are still two or three years away, but Fahmy said the response he’s received from oncologists about the nanogel technology has been overwhelmingly positive.
He likened the nanogels to custom-made buses that fit specific passengers. Those passengers the cancer drugs can be the same drugs already in use. They’re simply made more effective, with less potential for side-effects.
“The chemistry is old, but the rules for assembly are new,” Fahmy said.
As the research progresses, he said, Yale scientists will be looking into both a pill and topical patch form of delivering the nanogels. Beyond that, there may be applications for nanogels to carry medicine to treat other forms of cancer, such as lung or pancreatic tumors.
“What we have now are a set of tools that are extremely encouraging,” Fahmy said.