The National Cancer Institute of the National Institutes of Health announced in September a $144 million dollar, five-year initiative for developing and applying nanotechnology to improve the detection, diagnosis, and treatment of cancer.
The new initiative is a multidisciplinary effort that combines physical science, engineering, chemistry, and medicine. "This is a comprehensive and multisector initiative that is designed to really develop and ensure the application of the best of nanotechnology to cancer." said Anna Barker, NCI Deputy Director.
As part of the initiative, NCI plans to fund about five "centers of cancer nanotechnology excellence," which will be collaborations of laboratories and research centers designed to integrate nanotechnology development into basic and applied cancer research. The initiative will also support multidisciplinary research teams and a nanotechnology characterization laboratory that will develop standards for nanoscale devices.
At the announcement on September 13, several scientists spoke about the potential for nanotech to dramatically improve cancer detection and treatment.
Richard Smalley, professor of chemistry, physics, and astronomy at Rice University, and winner of the 1996 Nobel Prize in chemistry for the discovery of fullerenes, said, "What's new is the notion that we can actually build new nanoobjects that have never existed before." These objects could be coated with antibodies or other targeting agents that will find cancerous cells, and could carry drugs to kill those cells.
Smalley also envisioned that in 10 to 20 years, nanotechnology will make possible blood tests that will be able to determine the concentration of 30,000 different proteins within half an hour, significantly improving the detection and diagnosis of disease.
Mauro Ferrari, a special advisor to the NCI and professor of biomedical engineering at Ohio State University, discussed several examples of nanotechnology being applied to cancer. He pointed out that some nanotech applications, including liposomes, tiny capsules that deliver drugs, are already clinically available. "As exciting as those developments have been, they are the tip of the iceberg," he said.
Other technologies are being developed. For instance, nanowires could detect cancer markers in samples flowing through microfluidic channels. Similarly, nanoscale cantilevers could be coated with molecules that attract and bind specific cancer markers, and could be used as part of a diagnostic device that could quickly and sensitively detect cancer-related molecules. Also being developed are nanoparticles that would enter the body and attach to cancerous cells, making it possible to image malignant cells that could not be detected through conventional imaging. Similar nanodevices could also deliver drugs directly to cancer cells while sparing healthy cells, thus reducing the side effects of treatment and improving quality of life.
Samuel Wickline, professor of medicine, physics and biomedical engineering at Washington University, said that one of the advantages of the NCI initiative is that it facilitates the interaction of scientists who work in different disciplines. "This is essentially a multi-disciplinary activity. You have to understand the language of chemists, physicists, biologists, immunologists, and going further, you have to understand the regulatory language that is required to get something done."
Though nanomaterials show promise in detecting and treating diseases, some people worry about possible unpredicted heath or environmental effects. Vicki Colvin, a chemist and director of the Center for Biological and Environmental Nanotechnology at Rice University, has investigated the safety of some nanoparticles. She said that the surface of the particle, more than its composition, determines how it interacts with a biological environment, so the key to making safe nanoparticles is controlling their surfaces. Colvin added that testing the structures early on in the process is essential. "A lot of nanostructures behave in ways we have predicted. Some don't." she said.
Janet Woodcock, Acting Director Commissioner for Operations of the FDA, said, "We'll have to be vigilant because there might be novel or unanticipated reactions." The FDA will work to assess the safety and effectiveness of new nanodevices. Nomenclature and classification of the devices will also have to be worked out, said Woodcock.