Based on data collected by the National Cancer Institute (NCI), a part of the National Institutes of Health, an American’s lifetime risk of developing cancer at any site in the body is almost 40 percent. The NCI estimates that in 2018, more than 1.7 million cases of cancer will be diagnosed in the United States and more than 600,000 people will lose their lives to the disease. With these statistics in mind, it should come as no surprise that cancer ranks second on the list of leading causes of death in the U.S. every year.
Still, when reviewing the data associated with cancer diagnosis and treatment, what can’t be quantified is the far-reaching emotional effects the illness has on patients and their loved ones. As the number of serious health issues grows along with the population, it is more important than ever for researchers to discover more effective ways to diagnose, treat and ultimately prevent cancer in its many forms. One way some leading academics propose to make this possible is through Convergence in Healthcare.
At its core, Convergence in Healthcare calls for an integration of the disciplines of life science, physical science, computing, engineering, mathematics and chemistry in the interest of approaching biomedical research from a new angle. Many believe this type of collaborative effort could lead to much-needed innovation in cancer research.
One area of convergence with particular promise in cancer research is nanotechnology. Listed below are three ways scientists are using nanotechnology to help develop new strategies to treat cancer patients and catch the disease in earlier stages than ever before.
By developing a less harmful cancer treatment.
Individuals living with cancer today have a number of treatment options. However, some of the most common methods to help people overcome the disease are nearly as harmful to the body as they are healing.
For example, conventional chemotherapy is often used to destroy cancer cells. Unfortunately, along with the disease, the method also destroys many healthy cells, leaving patients weak and vulnerable to other diseases. Convergent nanotechnology research is poised to offer a much less damaging alternative.
Groups of convergent researchers are working to package molecules known as RNA in polymer nanoparticles and deliver them to target cells. The RNA is then able to interfere or "turn off" specific genes within the diseased cells.
In terms of cancer treatment, researchers believe these RNA-packed nanoparticles can be engineered to target specific sites of cancer cells. There, they would silence the genes responsible for creating proteins integral to the growth of cancer in the body. In doing so, researchers are working to create a form of cancer treatment which destroys only diseased cells, leaving healthy tissues intact.
By designing new early detection methods.
Convergence in Healthcare researchers are also looking at ways to use nanotechnology as a surveillance tool to identify the presence of cancer at the earliest possible stages. One of the simplest and most promising examples of this research can be seen in the development of a paper-strip urine test developed through the collaboration of researchers from MIT and the Koch Institute.
In the course of this research project, scientists engineered nanoparticles capable of containing synthetic biomarkers and protein-reactive materials for release into the body. Once injected into the body, the nanoparticles are designed to gravitate toward the proteins in tumor cells.
When the nanoparticles arrive at the site of a tumor, they release the synthetic biomarkers at a volume determined by the quantitative measurement of the tumor. The synthetic biomarkers are then passed to the urine, where their levels are detected by the paper strip. This enables doctors to detect not only the presence of the tumor, but also determine how large it is.
By developing a cancer vaccine.
The research programs dedicated to finding new methods of early diagnosis as mentioned above are important. However, early diagnosis and treatment offers the best possible outcome in a patient’s fight against cancer. Another area of convergent research is focused on a revolutionary, preemptive approach to combatting cancer at its earliest stages in the form of an immunotherapy-based cancer vaccine.
The design of the cancer vaccine would rely on the ability of scientists to help immune cells recognize specific types of cancer cells, should they appear. Researchers have worked on a form of vaccine that induces strong T-cell recognition and reaction in response to the presence of a tumor. However, this type of vaccine’s potency is low unless it is able to reach the lymph nodes, where it can mobilize many of the body’s immune cells.
To enable the vaccine to arrive at the lymph nodes without being swept out of the body by the blood stream, scientists leveraged nanotechnology principles to equip the vaccine with a fatty tail. The fatty tail helped the vaccine bind with the molecule albumin, which naturally binds to fatty molecules and facilitates their transport to the lymph nodes.
As a result, the vaccine initiates a stronger immune response to early stage tumor cells. Additionally, it limits the amount of contact the vaccine has with other parts of the body. This, in turn, limits unwanted side effects in healthy tissues.