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14 August, 2014 - 10:09 By News Desk

Cambridge strikes gold with Trojan Horse brain tumour therapy


Cambridge UK scientists and engineers have devised a new Trojan Horse solution to zap brain cancer cells with gold nanoparticles.

They are convinced their successful lab trials could turn into a new therapy to counter the most vicious and lethal brain cancer in humans.

Professor Mark Welland and Dr Colin Watts, who led the Cambridge research teams, say the smart technology has already proved “highly effective” in lab-based tests.

“By combining this strategy with cancer cell-targeting materials, we should be able to develop a therapy for glioblastoma and other challenging cancers in the future,” says Professor Welland.

Glioblastoma multiforme is the most common and aggressive brain tumour in adults and notoriously tough to treat. Many sufferers die within a few months of diagnosis and only six in every 100 patients with the condition are alive after five years.

The Cambridge research involved engineering nanostructures containing both gold and cisplatin, a conventional chemotherapy drug. These were released into tumour cells that had been taken from glioblastoma patients and grown in the lab.

Once smuggled inside, these nanospheres were exposed to radiotherapy. This caused the gold to release electrons which damaged the cancer cell’s DNA and its overall structure – boosting the impact of the chemotherapy drug.

The process was so effective that 20 days later, the cell culture showed no evidence of any revival, suggesting that the tumour cells had been destroyed.

While more work is needed before the technology can be used to treat people with glioblastoma, the results offer a highly promising foundation for future therapies. Importantly, the research was carried out on cell lines derived directly from glioblastoma patients, enabling the team to test the approach on evolving, drug-resistant tumours.

Mark Welland is Professor of Nanotechnology at the Department of Engineering and a Fellow of St John’s College and Dr Colin Watts is a clinician scientist and honorary consultant neurosurgeon at the Department of Clinical Neurosciences. Their work is reported in the Royal Society of Chemistry journal, Nanoscale.

Professor Welland said: “The combined therapy that we have devised appears to be incredibly effective in the live cell culture. This is not a cure, but it does demonstrate what nanotechnology can achieve in fighting these aggressive cancers.

“By combining this strategy with cancer cell-targeting materials, we should be able to develop a therapy for glioblastoma and other challenging cancers in the future.”

Dr Watts added: “We need to be able to hit the brain cancer cells directly with more than one treatment at the same time. This is important because some cancer cells are more resistant to one type of treatment than another.

“Nanotechnology provides the opportunity to give the cancer cells this ‘double whammy’ and open up new treatment options in the future.”

In an effort to beat tumours more comprehensively, scientists have been researching ways in which gold nanoparticles might be used in treatments for some time. Gold is a benign material which in itself poses no threat to the patient and the size and shape of the particles can be controlled very accurately.

When exposed to radiotherapy, the particles emit a type of low energy electron, known as Auger electrons, capable of damaging the diseased cell’s DNA and other intracellular molecules. This low energy emission means that they only have an impact at short range, so they do not cause any serious damage to healthy cells that are nearby.

Converting the lab tests into a therapy in-man will require extensive trials to assess, among other things, in-patient safety.

The full research paper can be found at:

• IMAGE: A cancer cell containing the nanoparticles. The nanoparticles are coloured green, and have entered the nucleus, which is the area in blue. Credit:  M Welland

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