Nanomedicine: New Options for Cancer Patients

Nanomedicine is the use of nanotechnology to prevent, diagnose, or treat disease, and nanotechnology is the manipulation of matter on a very small scale. The National Nanotechnology Initiative defines it as "science, engineering, and technology conducted at the nanoscale, or between 1 and 100 nanometers." For reference, a nanometer is one billionth of a meter—there are close to 25.5 million nanometers in a single inch!

The important thing to know: Miniscule nanoparticles can behave in ways that larger matter does not. According to the National Cancer Institute's Alliance for Nanotechnology in Cancer, nanotechnology allows scientists and engineers to develop products with new and innovative chemical, physical, and biological features. Here's how the technology is helping to diagnosis and treat cancer.

Nanotechnology and Cancer

Cancer is one area for which nanomedicine can be particularly beneficial. Not only can nanotechnology assist in cancer diagnosis—Magnetic Resonance Images (MRI) and Computed Tomography (CT) scans can detect metal oxide nanoparticles that have been attached to antibodies against common epitopes of cancer cells—but nanomedicine is also a resource for treatment. For instance, Abraxane®, which is FDA-approved to treat breast, pancreatic, and non-small cell lung cancers, is the chemotherapy drug Paclitaxel in a nanoparticle formulation.

Nanomedicine offers precise and targeted treatment, unlike traditional cancer therapies, which often destroy nearby healthy tissue when used to attack malignancies. While conventional cancer treatments like surgery, radiation, and chemotherapy may not completely destroy the cancer, they can often cause unpleasant side effects, including nausea, nerve pain, hair loss, exhaustion, and a weakened immune system.

Nanomedicines can carry chemotherapeutics directly to the tumor while sparing nearby healthy tissue. This means that doctors can use smaller doses to achieve good results—and that there's a lower risk of painful and debilitating side effects.

How Nanotechnology Is Used to Treat Cancer

Here's a brief overview of some of the ways the technology is being used:

Passive targeting. Some nanocarrier drugs use passive targeting to destroy cancer cells. Due to their small size, many nanoparticles can extravasate (pass by infiltration or effusion) from blood vessels and are then retained by the cancerous mass. This concentrates the drugs exactly where they'll be most effective.

Active targeting. With active targeting, cancerous cells might be induced to absorb drugs carried by nanoparticles, or nanoparticles might attach to molecules that bind to particular cancer cell receptors.

Nanoshells. Another new nanotechnology that can be used to fight cancer, nanoshells are designed to absorb light and generate heat. Cancerous cells internalize the nanoshells, and then, when regular light is applied, the nanoshells start vibrating, creating an intense and localized heat that kills the cancer cell without affecting nearby healthy tissues.

Nano-therm. In the European Union, brain tumors can be treated with a nanomedicine called Nano-therm. During this "thermotherapy," a liquid containing magnetic nanoparticles is surgically injected into a patient's brain tumor. The patient is then exposed to a machine that causes the nanoparticles to penetrate the tumor cells. The nanoparticles heat up, which either destroys the tumor or prepares the cells for combined chemotherapy/radiotherapy treatments.

The field of nanomedicine is new—and growing. If you've been diagnosed with cancer, speak to your doctor about all your treatment options, and whether you're a candidate for nanomedicine.

Ennio Tasciotti, PhD, Department of Medicine co-chair, Houston Methodist Hospital, reviewed this article.



National Cancer Institute. "Learn About Nanotechnology in Cancer." Accessed October 11, 2013.

NCI Alliance for Nanotechnology in Cancer. "Benefits for Treatment and Clinical Outcomes."

National Nanotechnology Initiative. "What is Nanotechnology?" Accessed October 11, 2013.

National Nanotechnology Initiative. "Size of the Nanoscale." Accessed October 28, 2013.

National Cancer Institute. "FDA Approval for Paclitaxel Albumin-stabilized Nanoparticle Formulation." Page updated September 6, 2013.

Christine Ottery. "Treating Brain Cancer with Nanomedicine." The Dana Foundation. February 13, 2012.