Exploding nanobubbles attack cancer cells from the inside out

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Researchers have used ultrasound to "pop" drug-carrying nanobubbles as a more targeted approach to cancer treatment(Credit: Shutterstock)

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No cancer treatment is straightforward, but attacking a tumor in the liver is an especially problematic process that normally involves surgery. A new technique may come to offer a less-invasive approach, however, by relying on nanobubbles that sneak cancer-fighting drugs into the tumor and can be popped to release their payload at just the right time.

In developing the new approach, scientists at the University of Illinois sought to make use of an already approved cancer drug called Targretin, or bexarotene. The drug is usually delivered in the form of a capsule for the treatment of Cutaneous T cell lymphoma, a type of cancer of the immune system. But the team would need to re-engineer the drug to make it suitable for tackling solid tumors.

This meant filling tiny nano-scale bubbles with Targretin in prodrug form, meaning the compound remained inactive until triggered. These bubbles were inserted into an in vivo model of a pig liver using a flexible catheter. During the cellular internalization process, ultrasound was used to pop the nanobubbles, activating and releasing the prodrug inside the cancer cells.

"Using a swine cancer model for drug screening is rare, providing us a great opportunity to study this new class of therapeutic nanobubble in a preclinical system closer to human," says lead researcher Dipanjan Pan. "Furthermore, the study uniquely looks at the system from atomic to molecular to cell, tissue and then organ level. With this result in hand, the next step could be to test them in humans."

As well as offering a potential alternative to surgery, the team says this very specific release mechanism could offer more precise drug treatments that spare healthy cells.

The research was published in the journal ACS Nano.

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