Less-invasive or more patient-friendly ways to deliver drugs and therapies to patients are one of the key goals of those working on medical technologies these days. As part of these efforts, a research team at Washington State University has tapped nanotechnology for a novel way to deliver drugs and therapies without causing any toxic effects on the patient.
The work—led by Yuehe Lin, professor in WSU’s School of Mechanical and Materials Engineering, and Chunlong Chen, senior scientist at the Department of Energy’s Pacific Northwest National Laboratory—potentially could lead to more effective therapies and diagnostics for cancer and other illnesses, researchers said.
Schematic representation of the movement of a flower‑like nanoparticle as it makes its way through a cellular trap to deliver therapeutic genes. Researchers developed the technology for targeted drug delivery inside the human body. (Image source: Washington State University)
Toxicity is the First Concern
“To develop nanotechnology for medical purposes, the first thing to consider is toxicity—that is the first concern for doctors,” Lin said of the work in a news release.
Indeed, researchers have been working for some time to develop nanomaterials that can effectively carry therapeutic genes directly into a person’s cells for the treatment of diseases such as cancer, which limits any negative medication effect on healthy areas of the body.
Given this goal, limiting the toxicity of the drugs is a key interest for researchers, as well as ensuring the delivery is effective, he said.
What the WSU team developed to solve the problem are nanoscale, biologically inspired materials that could model therapeutic genes into tumor cells. Specifically, the particles are flower-like and about 150 nanometers in size—which is more or less one thousand times smaller than the width of a piece of paper.
Sheets of peptoids similar to the natural peptides that are make up proteins comprise the particles. Peptoids are well-suited to delivering medications for a couple of reasons, researchers said. One is that they’re fairly easy to synthesize and, the other is that they’re similar to natural biological materials, so they work well in biological systems.
To have the ability to track and keep an eye on the particles as they made their way through cells, researchers added fluorescent probes to them. They also added the element fluorine to the peptoid nanoflowers, which helped them more easily escape from cellular traps that can often impede drug delivery.
In experiments, researchers loaded the flower‑like particles with therapeutic genes and found that they were able to make their way smoothly out of a predicted cellular trap, enter the heart of the cell, and release the drug payload there.
“The nanoflowers successfully and rapidly escaped (the cell trap) and exhibited minimal cytotoxicity,” Lin said of the work. The team published a paper detailing their research in the journal Small.
Researchers so far have tested their method with model drug molecules. Their next step is to conduct further studies using real medicines on the way to proving the viability of their method for future use in patients.
“This paves a new way for us to develop nanocargoes that can efficiently deliver drug molecules into the cell and offers new opportunities for targeted gene therapies,” Lin said.
Elizabeth Montalbano is a freelance writer who has written about technology and culture for 20 years. She has lived and worked as a professional journalist in Phoenix, San Francisco and New York City. In her free time she enjoys surfing, traveling, music, yoga and cooking. She currently resides in a village on the southwest coast of Portugal.
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