Nanotech Trojan horses target and kill brain cancer

Nanoparticles deliver 'death genes' to cancer cells, leaving normal brain tissue healthy

Scientists at Johns Hopkins University are using nanoparticles as Trojan horses that deliver "death genes" to kill brain cancer cells that surgeons can't get to.

The nanoparticles, are biodegradable and deliver the genes, which induce death in cancer cells but don't affect healthy cells. A brain tumor is killed by the so-called "death genes" without damaging healthy brain tissue, which is a normal side effect of other cancer treatments, such as chemotherapy and radiation.

"In our experiments, our nanoparticles successfully delivered a test gene to brain cancer cells in mice, where it was then turned on," said Jordan Green, assistant professor of biomedical engineering and neurosurgery at the university's School of Medicine, in a statement. "We now have evidence that these tiny Trojan horses will also be able to carry genes that selectively induce death in cancer cells, while leaving healthy cells healthy."

The treatment is focused on glioblastomas, the most lethal and aggressive form of brain cancer, and has been tested on mice but not on humans.

Alfredo Quiones-Hinojosa, professor of neurosurgery and a member of the research team, said this method could be used to battle different forms of cancer.

"It is exciting to have found a way to selectively target gene delivery to cancer cells," he said. "It's a method that is much more feasible and safer for patients than traditional gene therapy... We hope our continued experiments will shed light on this so that we can apply what we learn to other scenarios."

According to the American Cancer Society, people between 45 and 54 years old who have glioblastomas have a 17% chance of surviving for five years or more. That survival rate drops to 4% to 6% for people between 55 and 64.

It's not uncommon for cancer researchers to use nanotechnology to battle the disease.

Last fall, Cornell University researchers paired nanoparticles with infrared heat to kill colorectal cancer cells.

Heat has been shown to kill cancer cells but heating up the entire body damages both cancer and healthy cells.

To focus the heat directly on the cancerous tumors, scientists send gold nanoparticles inside the tumor. Then researchers use a near-infrared laser to heat the nanoparticles to about 120 degrees Fahrenheit, which is hot enough to kill many cancerous cells.

Scientists at MIT also are using nanoparticles, focusing their research on breast cancer. The MIT research team also announced last fall that it has been tackling breast cancer by using nanoparticles to carry chemotherapy drugs, along with a genetic messenger to weaken the cancer's resistance to the medicine.

Another research team at MIT is using nanotechnology to help doctors detect cancer in their patients sooner, increasing their odds of beating the disease.

This article, Nanotech Trojan horses target and kill brain cancer, was originally published at

Sharon Gaudin covers the Internet and Web 2.0, emerging technologies, and desktop and laptop chips for Computerworld. Follow Sharon on Twitter at @sgaudin, on Google+ or subscribe to Sharon's RSS feed. Her email address is

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