This could radically change treatments for cancers and brain diseases.
Scientists have long struggled with determining the best way to deliver drugs to targeted areas of the body — chemotherapy drugs, for instance, can end up killing tons of healthy cells throughout the process.
However, scientists may have figured out a fix to the problem: smart nanocrystals that could deliver drugs to the right spot. In the future, nanotechnologists hope that these new tools could change how cancers and brain diseases are treated. They published the new study in the journal Nature Communications.
"At this stage the treatment for cancer is applying radiation or chemical drugs which tends to be very aggressive," lead researcher Dayong Jin from the University of Technology Sydney (UTS) Faculty of Science said in a press release. "You might kill the cancer cells, but you can also kill up to 70 to 90 percent of the healthy cells."
Cancer treatments often come with awful side effects since the medicines affect tumor cells as well as rapidly regenerating healthy cells like bone marrow and hair follicles. Further, many drugs fail to escape our immune system, and macrophages — large immune cells that form in response to infection or accumulating dead or damaged cells — or other white blood cells end up devouring them before they can do their job.
The blood-brain barrier poses another problem — while it’s a very effective way to block viruses and other unwanted particles from getting through, it complicates drug delivery to the brain.
"A lot of the time the drug tends to circulate in the blood system and not the brain," said Jin. “We need to find a new vehicle for drug delivery that allows the healthy cell and blood brain barrier to recognise the drug as a ‘friend’ and not an ‘enemy’.”
Over the past three years, Jin and his team have been working to create these new and improved drug-delivering vehicles. They now have a library of 800 different nanocrystal creations, each shaped differently based on how their atoms cluster together. They act as different molecular tags, and can be used for various purposes — delivering drugs, targeting specific cells, and even getting high resolution images inside the body.
“Hybrid nanocrystals are multifunctional and able to do different things simultaneously. For example, one can design a super nanoparticle that has optical, magnetic and chemical responses which allows for multiple modality imaging of the disease and [eventually] super high resolution images,” said Jin.
How are the crystals made? The researchers inlay different ratios of molecules and oleate anions, or atoms with a negative charge, to the crystal formations. These differing ratios then change the structures, creating “hybrid” nanocrystals that have the ability to help scientists with a number of different tasks.
Since the nanocrystals have so many functions, it means they’ll be highly effective at seeking out the targeted area in the body — for instance, a tumor that needs to be cut or an area of the brain that’s damaged — and show doctors what needs to be done.
"Having precise diagnostics is also important because when a surgeon operates they need to understand exactly where the tumour is," said Jin. "If higher resolution imaging is available, the surgeon will be able to see a precise boundary between the healthy cells and the tumour cells which will result in a better outcome for the patient."
Next, the scientists will further collaborate with medical researchers to tailor the nanocrystal design. Hopefully the research continues to progress successfully, and perhaps the difficulties with effectively delivering drugs will finally become a thing of the past.