Think of cancer treatment, and a few names that will come up are surgery, radiation therapy, chemotherapy and hormone therapy. Though these traditional treatments have been used successfully in treating various cancers, most of them cause many side effects. Of the newer cancer treatments being studied worldwide, nanotechnology holds enormous potential to revolutionise the diagnosis and treatment of cancers.
What is Nanotechnology?
Nanotechnology is the science of manipulating matter at the atomic and molecular levels to create materials or substances with new properties. This technology uses nanoparticles– particles so tiny that one cell can hold nearly one million of them! It is being used in various domains and industries domains, including medicine.
Manipulating structures and properties using nanotechnology is like working at a sub-microscopic laboratory that enables you to handle viruses, DNA fragments, etc., using tools and robots made for this purpose.
Nanoparticles are being used in research to create precise and more effective cancer treatments that cause fewer side effects. Unlike traditional drug delivery systems, nanoparticles are designed to target the tumour cells and release the drugs in them at a controlled rate to kill the cancer cells.
Here are some ways this technology has been used in medicine to date:
- To manipulate DNA: Used in treating diseases that require alteration of individual genes or modifying molecular pathways.
- In the development and use of nanobots and nanostars to target cancer cells
- Using nanotechnology to set up nano factories to produce drugs inside the body.
- To develop nanofibers that are useful for wound dressings and implant materials.
- In the development of components for artificial organs and tissue engineering
Nanotechnology and Cancer Care
Cancer is a leading cause of death and is increasingly becoming a global health burden. It can begin in any part of the body and is characterised by uncontrolled growth and multiplication of cells. Standard cancer treatment options are not specific or targeted to cancer cells and cause side effects.
The key to effective cancer care is prompt diagnosis and early treatments. Since all biological processes involved in cancer development occur at a nanoscale, using nanotechnology to study and alter them in real-time, especially in the early stages of the disease, can prevent cancer progression.
Nanotechnology can help in the diagnosis and treatment of cancer. The most significant advantage of using nanoparticles for cancer treatments is that they precisely target the cancer cells so that they do not harm the surrounding cells, resulting in lesser side effects.
Here are some nanotechnology tools used in cancer treatments:
- Carbon nanotubes
- Polymeric micelles
- Carbon dots
Nanotechnology is also valuable for cancer diagnosis in the following ways:
- It helps in tumour staging
- Validates cancer imaging at tissue, cell and molecular levels using tools like fluorescent nanoprobes
- Useful for cancer biomarker screening
Benefits of Nanotechnology
Though still under study and with limited use in the real world, nanotechnology has shown several benefits over conventional diagnostic methods and treatment modalities:
- Passive tumour accumulation of drug as nanoparticles rely on Enhanced Permeability Retention or EPR effect. Due to this, the nanomedicines or drugs can accumulate in the target cancer cell and enhance treatment efficiency.
- Nanotechnology enables active tumour targeting.
- Enables transport across tissue barriers to allow the cancer drugs to reach their tumour site
- It makes cancer treatments safe and precise.
- It increases sensitivity and rapid diagnosis of cancer.
Are Nanotechnology Treatments for Cancer Safe?
Though considered reliable, the safety of nanotechnology in medicine and cancer care is continuously being tested. The small nano size, high reactivity, and unique properties of nanoparticles that are the reason for their biological applications have also raised concerns about their effects on the overall body health, environmental health and safety. Carbon nanotubes are one such nanotechnology device that is a cause of concern after association with tissue damage in a few animal studies.
Regardless of a few studies, nanotechnology in cancer diagnosis and treatment is largely safe. Infact, drug delivery using nanotechnology is less toxic, more accurate and safe than traditional treatment options due to minimal damage afflicted on healthy tissues.
Seeking a Second Opinion
Currently, nanotechnology-based treatments are offered to cancer patients only under clinical trials. If your doctor feels any nanotechnology-based therapies may benefit you, they may ask you to enrol for a clinical trial. Before beginning your cancer treatment journey, you must seek a second opinion to get a better, more comprehensive view of your options.