Nanotechnology may lead to new liver cancer therapies

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Nanotechnology may open a new opportunity for the treatment of liver cancer, according to researchers from Penn State College of Medicine in Hershey, Penn., who used molecular-sized bubbles filled with chemotherapy drugs to prevent cell growth and initiate cell death in test tubes and mice.

Researchers evaluated the use of molecular-sized bubbles filled with C6-ceramide, called cerasomes, as an anti-cancer agent. Ceramide is a lipid molecule naturally present in the cell's plasma membrane and controls cell functions, including cell aging, or senescence.

"The beauty of ceramide is that it is non-toxic to normal cells, putting them to sleep, while selectively killing cancer cells," said Mark Kester, PhD, professor of pharmacology at Penn State.

Cerasomes, developed at Penn State College of Medicine, can target cancer cells very specifically and accurately, rather than affecting a larger area that includes healthy cells. The problem with ceramide is that as a lipid, it cannot be delivered effectively as a drug. To solve this limitation, the researchers used nanotechnology, creating the tiny cerasome, to turn the insoluble lipid into a soluble treatment.

"Cerasomes were designed as a therapeutic alternative to common chemotherapeutics," said Kester. "These have been shown to be toxic to cancer cells and not to normal cells, and have already been shown to effectively treat cellular and animal models of breast cancer and melanoma. Cerasomes have also been shown to be essentially free of toxic side effects normally associated with anticancer agents."

In the test tube and animal models of liver cancer, cerasomes, but not a placebo, selectively induced cell death in the cancer cells, the researchers reported. In mice with liver cancer, cerasomes blocked tumor vascularization, the forming of blood vessels needed for growth and nutrition.

"It is plausible that preventing liver tumor vascularization with cerasome treatment could induce widespread apoptosis, a genetically programmed series of events that leads to cell death in tumors," Kester said. "The efficacy of our cerasomes in the treatment of diverse cancers lends significant therapeutic promise as it translates from bench to bedside."

A Penn State Dean's Feasibility Grant, Pennsylvania tobacco settlement funds and the National Institutes of Health supported this work.