Some of the most exciting medical research these days involves light. Light therapy for cancer, in which a tumor-seeking dye becomes toxic as soon as a light is switched on, manages to avoid slaughtering nearby healthy cells. Optogenetics—using light to turn on or off the expression of neurons—has advanced researchers’ understanding of neurological diseases.
Now, a recent paper is a reminder that light might someday be used for exquisitely tailored drug delivery: in this paper, tiny packages bearing all the molecular machinery to build a protein are idle when injected into mice, but spring into action when exposed to UV light.
The nanoparticle. ACUPA is a protein that helps the particle attach to cancer
cells; the red and blue pieces are polymers that make up the particle’s shell.
One of the persistent problems in cancer treatments is that try as we might, it’s hard to get drugs to attack just tumors: they nearly always attack patients’ healthy cells too. Finding ways to get drugs to kill tumors, and tumors alone, is a major area of research, and a recent trial in Science Translational Medicine indicates that one promising strategy, encasing the drug in a tiny particle that dissolves when it reaches a tumor, works better than just using the drug alone.
What’s the News: Researchers have developed a new, more targeted way to deliver cancer-fighting drugs, in which some nanoparticles zero in on a tumor, then summon another type of nanoparticles that actually dispense the drug. This method, detailed in a new study published online by Nature Materials, piggybacks on the body’s underlying biochemistry, using the chain of events that makes blood clot to call the drug-bearing nanoparticles to the site.
What’s the News: Scientists are using nanoparticles to develop ways to fight bacteria that are resistant to conventional antibiotics. These tiny drugs physically punch holes through bacteria instead of killing them chemically, which means that they could be especially effective on antibiotic-resistant bacteria strains like the dangerous methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA). “The applications are going to be very diverse, whether we’re talking about wound healing or dressing, skin infection, and quite possibly injections into the bloodstream,” James Hedrick, master inventor at IBM Almaden Research Center in San Jose, California, told Popular Science.
So far in 2010 we’ve seen nanotubes that carry thermopower waves to create electricity, nanoparticles that latch onto only damaged cells to deliver drugs there, and more. Today there are a couple more clever uses for nanotechnology—taking the salt out of salt water, and nanobots that deliver gene therapy.
In Nature Nanotechnology, an MIT team showed they could use nanotech to desalinate water in a new way. At the moment, desalination plants employ reverse osmosis, in which pressure forces the salt ions through a membrane. But this process is an energy-gobbler and the membrane is prone to clogging, which means that de-sal plants are inevitably big, expensive, fixed pieces of kit [Sydney Morning Herald].