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Nanoscale vehicle battles cancer

Wed, 02/06/2013 - 3:38pm
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A diagram of the synthesis of degradable nanocapsules into cell nuclei to induce apoptosis, or programmed cell death, in cancer cells. The ananocapsules degrade harmlessly in normal cells. Image: UCLA Engineering   

A tiny capsule invented at a University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) laboratory could go a long way toward improving cancer treatment.

Devising a method for more precise and less invasive treatment of cancer tumors, a team led by researchers from the UCLA Henry Samueli School of Engineering and Applied Science has developed a degradable nanoscale shell to carry proteins to cancer cells and stunt the growth of tumors without damaging healthy cells.

In a new study, published online in Nano Today, a group led by Yi Tang, a professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering and a member of the California NanoSystems Institute at UCLA, reports developing tiny shells composed of a water-soluble polymer that safely deliver a protein complex to the nucleus of cancer cells to induce their death. The shells, which at about 100 nanometers are roughly half the size of the smallest bacterium, degrade harmlessly in non-cancerous cells.

The process does not present the risk of genetic mutation posed by gene therapies for cancer, or the risk to healthy cells caused by chemotherapy, which does not effectively discriminate between healthy and cancerous cells, Tang says.

"This approach is potentially a new way to treat cancer," says Tang. "It is a difficult problem to deliver the protein if we don't use this vehicle. This is a unique way to treat cancer cells and leave healthy cells untouched."

The cell-destroying material, apoptin, is a protein complex derived from an anemia virus in birds. This protein cargo accumulates in the nucleus of cancer cells and signals to the cell to undergo programmed self-destruction.

The polymer shells are developed under mild physiological conditions so as not to alter the chemical structure of the proteins or cause them to clump, preserving their effectiveness on the cancer cells.

Tests done on human breast cancer cell lines in laboratory mice showed significant reduction in tumor growth.

"Delivering a large protein complex such as apoptin to the innermost compartment of tumor cells was a challenge, but the reversible polymer encapsulation strategy was very effective in protecting and escorting the cargo in its functional form," says Muxun Zhao, lead author of the research and a graduate student in chemical and biomolecular engineering at UCLA.

Tang's group continues to research ways of more precisely targeting tumors, prolonging the circulation time of the capsules and delivering other highly sought-after proteins to cancer cells.

Source: University of California, Los Angeles

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