Cancer may be terrifying, but cancerous cells aren't actually that difficult to kill. The tricky bit is doing so without killing the host or making them dreadfully ill in the process. The key is treatments that only target the cancer cells while leaving the surrounding healthy tissue alone. By combining X-rays with nanoparticles, a team of researchers from the Centre for Nanoscale BioPhotonics (CNBP) in Australia has found a way of combating cancer deep inside the body in this way using a simple chemical.

According to the CNBP, one chemical that cancer cells are particularly vulnerable to is singlet oxygen. Though it has the same molecular structure as common O2, singlet oxygen is a high-energy form of oxygen that is very reactive toward organic compounds, which allows it to kill or inhibit cancer cells. However, the hard part is getting enough singlet oxygen in the vicinity of the cancer cells without harming the patient.

The CNBP approach is a variation on what is called photodynamic therapy. In this, light-sensitive compounds are placed next to the cancer cells. When activated by visible of near-infrared light, the material creates short lived, highly-activated molecular by-products that are toxic to the malignant cells.

Where the CNBP therapy differs is in using X-rays beamed at cerium fluoride (CeF3) nanoparticles, which are induced to conglomerate around the cancer cells. When struck by X-rays, the cerium fluoride releases singlet oxygen in quantities that, for the first time, can be accurately measured. This means that not only is the method potentially more effective than more conventional photodynamic therapy, but by using X-rays the diagnosis and treatment can reach deep inside the body instead of in the shallow tissues that longer wavelengths of light are restricted to.

Ewa Goldys, Deputy Director of the CNBP(Credit: CNBP)

"What we've shown through our measurements is the applicability of the photodynamic therapy approach to effectively treat tumours within," says Ewa Goldys, Deputy Director of the CNBP. "The beauty of this type of treatment is that it uses different biological pathways to kill cells as compared to chemotherapy, radiotherapy, and other current cancer practices. Deep tissue photodynamic therapy will potentially provide new treatment options for the cancer patients of the future."

According to the CNBP, the next step in the program will be to test different nanoparticles for improved singlet oxygen production.

The research was published in Scientific Reports.

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