Scientists are using nanoparticles and lasers to kill cancer cells by blowing them up from the inside.
Researchers at Rice University in Houston, Texas reported this week that they've found a new way to pinpoint and kill diseased cells by setting off tiny explosions inside them. So far, the treatment has been tested in a lab setting on leukemia cells as well as cells from head and neck cancers.
"Single-cell targeting is one of the most touted advantages of nanomedicine, and our approach delivers on that promise with a localized effect inside an individual cell," said Rice physicist Dmitri Lapotko, the lead researcher on the project, in a written statement. "The idea is to spot and treat unhealthy cells early, before a disease progresses to the point of making people extremely ill."
Researchers first put gold nanoparticles inside the diseased cells and then they zap the particles with a laser. The laser causes the particles to swell into what researchers are calling "nanobubbles" that burst the cells.
Nanobubbles are created when gold nanoparticles are pelted by short pulses of the laser, according to the university. Depending on the power of the laser, the bubbles can be made smaller or larger. And the larger they are, the more they can burst the cell they're in.
The researchers also noted that they were able to use the nanobubbles to blast through plaque that builds up and blocks arteries. Plaque build-up, also known as atherosclerosis, is the leading cause of heart attacks and stroke. According to the American Heart Association, 831,272 people died in the United States in 2006 because of heart disease.
Nanotechnology has been a key part of a lot of medical research in the past few years.
A team of British researchers announced in January that they are set to begin a trial program of planting nanotechnology-based artificial arteries into humans. The artificial arteries are made of a polymer that's combined with nanomaterials. Together, the materials can closely mimic natural vessels by pulsing along with the beating of the patient's heart.
Last October, Stanford University researchers reported that they had used nanotechnology and magnetics to create a biosensor designed to detect cancer in its early stages, making a cure more likely.
A month earlier, researchers at the University of Toronto announced that they had used nanomaterials to develop a microchip they say is also sensitive enough to detect early stage cancer. The chip is designed to detect the type of cancer and its severity.