Researchers this week have unveiled their progress in potential applications for nanotechnology in healthcare, and particularly in women’s health. The research has been undertaken at Rush University Medical Center where work is being done to determine how this technology could aid in diagnosis and treatment of ovarian cancer.
“While the mortality rates of many cancers have decreased significantly in recent decades, the rate for ovarian cancer has not changed much in the last 50 years, primarily due to delays in diagnosis,” said Jacob Rotmensch, Ph.D., section director of gynecologic oncology at Rush. “By exploiting the unique properties of nanotechnology, we hope to detect ovarian cancer earlier using highly sensitive imaging tools and develop drug carriers that can deliver therapeutic agents inside tumor cells.”
A nanometer is 1/80,000 the width of a human hair. At this scale, nanoscale devices are able to work with individual molecules on both the cell surface and within the cell.
“A nanotechnology based approach is needed because diagnosis of early stage cancer requires the detection and characterization of very small quantities of biomarker,” said Liaohai Chen, Ph.D., a molecular biologist and leader of the nano-bio group in the Biosciences Division at Argonne, and an adjunct faculty at Rush University Medical Center.
In regards to ovary biopsies, the researchers are exploring methods that would not call for the removal of the organ for testing.
To accomplish this, the team is using an atomic force microscope that is able to produce very high resolution images that can investigate the interaction of individual protein molecules. Through its use, the microscope allows the research team to study the molecular structure of cancer versus non-cancer cells and compare the stiffness. Rather than removing the ovary to look for cancer, a probe is currently under development to evaluate the tissue in vivo to diagnose cancer.
A second area of research involving nanotechnology uses viral particles as templates to fabricate uniform, nanometer imaging probes and drug carriers.
“The development of a smart probe and carrier complex will provide significant advantage to the clinicians as they can locate the tumor, monitor the drug delivery vehicle and control drug release using imaging techniques,” said Chen.
Another branch of the research at Rush is the development of nanometer sized contrast agents with ultrasound to diagnose ovarian cancer. Such nano ultrasonographic contrast media can pass through the smallest capillaries. It is hoped that the tiny bubbles will be able to light up on ultrasound and may be able to show the earliest vascular changes associated with ovarian malignancy. If successful, more research is planned regarding targeted imaging as well as targeted therapy.
These nanotechnology research projects are collaborations among Rush University Medical Center, Argonne National Laboratory, and the Illinois Institute of Technology.