Nanoparticles Carry Drugs and Turn the Heat on Cancer Cells

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Faculty of Health Science Assistant Professor Dai Yunlu’s team has developed nanoparticles that can carry drugs, turn the heat on cancer cells, and even help detect tumours. This shows great promise for more effective cancer diagnosis and treatment.

The diameter of each nanoparticle is 50 nm, around 1,600 to 2,000 times smaller than the width of a human hair. Prof Dai says that after entering systemic circulation, cancer drugs can cause damage not only to cancerous cells, but also to healthy ones. To mitigate this problem, he developed nanoparticles that can encapsulate drugs and carry them to the tumours, where the drugs are released under near‑infrared (NIR) light. ‘We control the location of drug release partly by exploiting the fact that the pH value of tumours is lower than that of normal cells. So we designed the nanoparticles in such a way as to change their structure only at a certain pH value,’ he says.

The nanoparticles show great potential for more effective cancer diagnosis and treatment

According to Prof Dai, the nanoparticles may be used concurrently for photothermal therapy. Under NIR irradiation, the tiny particles generate heat and destroy cancer cells with a high temperature. In addition, the particles may improve cancer diagnosis as an ideal contrast agent for multimodal imaging, the simultaneous use of more than one medical imaging technique.

Prof Dai Yunlu’s research team

In his experiments, Prof Dai treated tumour‑bearing mice with a combination of photothermal therapy and chemotherapy using the cancer drug Cisplatin, apart from multimodal imaging. Following irradiations of NIR light within a particular wavelength range, the mice’s tumours were significantly eradicated and, in some cases, completely disappeared. The mice’s overall survival rate is higher than the survival rate of their peers treated without nanoparticles.

The nanoparticles change their structure at a certain pH value and under near‑infrared light

The study was published in the academic journal Nanoscale Horizons, and was selected as one of the journal’s most popular articles in 2019. Meanwhile, Prof Dai’s team continues to study the application of the nanoparticles to combination therapy, the coordinated use of two or more therapeutic agents. ‘In cancer treatment, one plus one can be greater than two, and we’re striving to do just that,’ Prof Dai says.

ISSUE 22 | 2020

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Prof Dai Yunlu develops and designs functional nanomaterials for gene delivery, anticancer drug delivery, immunotherapy, and biological imaging‑guided tumour diagnosis and treatment.