February 21, 2009, Updated September 13, 2012

For millions of Americans with cancer, the side effects of chemotherapy and other drugs used to treat the disease can be devastating. But new drug-delivery research from Israel based on nano- and microtechnology might provide much-needed relief, and more effective cancer treatment.

The new drug delivery technology, developed at Tel Aviv University, enables drugs to specifically target cancer cells, leaving surrounding healthy cells intact and reducing the unpleasant side effects of chemotherapy. The science uses tiny bubbles, visible only through powerful microscopes, which contain payloads of therapeutic drugs.

“This development is on the leading edge of the new frontier of drug delivery and cancer treatment,” says Prof. Rimona Margalit, who developed the new technology.

The National Cancer Institute estimates that in January 2004, about 10.8 million Americans with a history of cancer were alive. In 2008, about 1.4m. new cases of cancer were diagnosed.

Existing treatments destroy all cells – healthy or sick

Today, medications like chemotherapy and radiation used to treat cancer do not target cancer cells alone, but destroy all cells – whether they are healthy or sick. The result is that patients can suffer anything from exhaustion and anemia, to nausea, vomiting and hair loss. There is also considerable damage to the patient’s immune system, making them susceptible to many additional illnesses.

Margalit’s technology allows cancer medications to be placed inside tiny bubbles, which are so minute that millions can fit in an inch measurement. The surface of the bubbles contains an agent that allows them to distinguish which cells are cancerous and which healthy. When the bubbles “recognize” a cancer cell, they deliver the medication they?re carrying directly to that cell.

Delivering the drug to the right location

As a result, the drug is more efficiently delivered to exactly the right location, improving the effectiveness of the treatment. Healthy cells are left undamaged causing less unpleasant side effects.

Details of Margalit’s new technology, which has been applied as both cancer and osteoarthritis therapies, were published in the journals Nature Nanotechnology, and Journal of Controlled Release (2008).

So far the technology has been tried out successfully in animal model studies. The technology can be applied to other medical conditions as well, ranging from diabetes and osteoarthritis, to wounds and infectious diseases. “In 20 years, it could be widespread,” says Margalit, of TAU’s Department of Biochemistry.

The next step, she says, is to apply the technology to humans, though clinical trials are still about a decade away. Margalit, who was involved in a recent TAU study that showed that the anti-depressant Prozac can be used to enhance the effectiveness of the anti-cancer drug, Doxorubicin, is now looking for a pharmaceutical company to invest in the research. “Economics is the hold-up, not the science,” she explains.

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Jason Harris

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