Researchers at the University of Central Florida have engineered nanoparticles that can target and destroy cancerous cells, delivering a chemotherapeutic drug directly to a tumor without harming healthy cells. This technology could not only mean the end of toxic, whole-body chemotherapy, but also provide a diagnostic role in the early detection of cancer.

Research into nanoparticles for cancer treatment has shown increasing promise in recent years, with scientists using them to target melanomas, burn out cancerous cells and as an alternative to biopsies.

What’s unique about the nanoparticles developed by Associate Professor Manuel Perez and his team is that not only can they serve as both therapeutic and diagnostic agents, but they’re also completely biodegradable and biocompatible.

Perez and his team loaded their nanoparticles with a drug called Taxol, one of the most widely used chemotherapeutic drugs but with many negative side effects. The Taxol-carrying nanoparticles were then “clicked” together with folic acid molecules, which cancer cells like to consume in large amounts. The cancer then literally attracts these delicious morsels and, when the nanoparticle enters a diseased cell, it floods it with Taxol as well as a fluorescent dye and iron oxide magnetic core.

These extra passengers in the nanoparticle allow easier optical imaging and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). So, by making them without Toxol, the nanoparticles can also serve a purely diagnostic function. If there is no cancer, the biodegradable nanoparticles won’t bind to the tissue and are eliminated by the liver, while the iron oxide core is used as regular iron in the body.

While the studies are still in the early stages, Perez says the results are “very encouraging”. He believes that the technology could have wider applications still, with other kinds of molecules attached to nanoparticles to specifically target particular tumors and malignancies.

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