Gold nanoparticles could ‘cook’ cancer cells

March 23, 2009: Researchers are describing a long-awaited advance toward applying the marvels of nanotechnology in the battle against cancer. They have developed the first hollow gold nanospheres — smaller than the finest flecks of dust — that search out and “cook” cancer cells. The cancer-destroying nanospheres show particular promise as a minimally invasive future treatment for malignant melanoma, the most serious form of skin cancer, the researchers say. Melanoma now causes more than 8,000 deaths annually in the United States alone and is on the increase globally.

The topic of a report presented at the American Chemical Society’s 237th National Meeting, the hollow gold nanospheres are equipped with a special “peptide.” That protein fragment draws the nanospheres directly to melanoma cells, while avoiding healthy skin cells. After collecting inside the cancer, the nanospheres heat up when exposed to near-infrared light, which penetrates deeply through the surface of the skin. In recent studies in mice, the hollow gold nanospheres did eight times more damage to skin tumors than the same nanospheres without the targeting peptides, the researchers say.

“This technique is very promising and exciting,” explains study co-author Jin Zhang, a professor of chemistry and biochemistry at the University of California in Santa Cruz. “It’s basically like putting a cancer cell in hot water and boiling it to death. The more heat the metal nanospheres generate, the better.”

This form of cancer therapy is actually a variation of photothermal ablation, also known as photoablation therapy (PAT), a technique in which doctors use light to burn tumors. Since the technique can destroy healthy skin cells, doctors must carefully control the duration and intensity of treatment.

Researchers now know that PATs can be greatly enhanced by applying a light absorbing material, such as metal nanoparticles, to the tumor. Although researchers have developed various types of metal nanoparticles to help improve this technique, many materials show poor penetration into cancer cells and limited heat carrying-capacities. These particles include solid gold nanoparticles and nanorods that lack the desired combination of spherical shape and strong near-infrared light absorption for effective PAT, scientists say.

To develop more effective cancer-burning materials, Zhang and colleagues focused on hollow gold nanospheres, each about 1/50,000th the width of a single human hair. Previous studies by others suggest that gold “nanoshells” have the potential for strong near-infrared light absorption. However, scientists have been largely unable to produce them successfully in the lab, Zhang notes.


Partial view of a gold nanosphere magnified by a factor of one billion, as seen through an electron microscope. The darker ring shows the “wall” of the nanosphere, while the lighter area to the right of the ring shows the interior region of the shell. (Photo courtesy of Adam Schwartzberg and Jin Zhang)

After years of research toward this goal, Zhang announced in 2006 that he had finally developed a nanoshell or hollow nanosphere with the “right stuff” for cancer therapy: Gold spheres with an optimal light absorption capacity in the near-infrared region, small size, and spherical shape, perfect for penetrating cancer cells and burning them up.

“Previously developed nanostructures such as nanorods were like chopsticks on the nanoscale,” Zhang says. “They can go through the cell membrane, but only at certain angles. Our spheres allow a smoother, more efficient flow through the membranes.”

The gold nanoshells, which are nearly perfect spheres, range in size from 30 to 50 nanometers — thousands of times smaller than the width of a human hair. The shells are also much smaller than other nanoparticles previously designed for photoablation therapy, he says. Another advantages is that gold is also safer and has fewer side effects in the body than other metal nanoparticles, Zhang notes.

In collaboration with Chun Li, a professor at the University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, Zhang and his associates equipped the nanospheres with a peptide to a protein receptor that is abundant in melanoma cells, giving the nanospheres the ability to target and destroy skin cancer. In tests using mice, the resulting nanospheres were found to be significantly more effective than solid gold nanoparticles due to much stronger near infrared-light absorption of the hollow nanospheres, the researchers say.

The next step is to try the nanospheres in humans, Zhang says. This requires extensive preclinical toxicity studies. The mice study is the first step, and there is a long way to go before it can be put into clinical practice, Li says.

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