Are Nanoparticles the Next Cancer Treatment?

The word nanoparticles may make people think about objects floating around in space, but according to new research, they show very early promise as a cancer treatment.

A team made up of academic researchers and scientists from BIND Biosciences, a biopharmaceutical company, developed specially programmed nanoparticles that targeted tumors and delivered high doses of a chemotherapy drug in a series of animal and human trials.

The nanoparticles are about one-thousandth the width of a human hair and made of the same chemical substance used in biodegradable sutures, said Robert Langer, a co-author and professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

"They are made out of very safe chemicals," he said.  "They are also very small so they can be taken up by the cells."

In an early-stage ongoing trial, about 17 patients with different types and stages of cancer receive doses of a nanoparticle containing the chemotherapy drug docetaxel every three weeks.

So far, Langer said, the particles seem to be safer and able to maintain a high concentration of the drug in the body.

"We don't see the same adverse effects we see with the drug, and there is also much more of the drug circulating and targeting the tumors," he said.

There has also been some tumor shrinkage in some of the patients, which is also encouraging.

"At this point, it seems to be more effective than the drug by itself," he said. "Some tumors we normally wouldn't be able to treat we're able to treat here."

But it's too early to be overly optimistic about the potential of nanoparticles since the study involving the cancer patients is primarily a trial designed to determine whether the treatment is safe.

"We still need to do more advanced clinical trials with many more patients," Langer said.