“I am not a cook”. Richard Nixon and the baking ingredient that could help win the “war on cancer”
In 1971 President Richard Nixon declared a “war on cancer” and signed the National Cancer Act into law. Forty years later we’re still waging that war, and cancer is still one of the leading causes of death. But now researchers in Ohio have unveiled a new weapon; a nanobomb that targets cancer stem cells.
In treating invasive cancers the standard weapons are chemotherapy and radiation, but cancer stem cells are somehow able to evade these and lie dormant. Eventually they emerge from hiding and multiply and spread throughout the body, leading to a recurrence of the cancer.
So researchers at The Ohio State University Comprehensive Cancer Center turned to nanoparticles to try and target them. Nanoparticles for those of who aren’t up on the latest trendy science topics (something I plead guilty to) are particles between 1 and 100 nanometers in size. Just to put it in context, that’s about one billionth of a meter. In other words, very small indeed.
In the past when scientists tried to use nanoparticles to carry anti-cancer therapies such as therapeutic RNA to the tumor, the cancer cells simply enfolded the RNA nanoparticles in a kind of compartment called an endosome, which rendered them useless.
In a news release, principal investigator Xiaoming He said their new approach helps the nanoparticles escape from the endosomes and attack the cancer:
“We believe we’ve overcome this challenge by developing nanoparticles that include ammonium bicarbonate, a small molecule that vaporizes when exposing the nanoparticles to near-infrared laser light, causing the nanoparticle and endosome to burst, releasing the therapeutic RNA.”
In the study, published in Advanced Materials, He and his team put micro-RNA miR-34a inside the nanoparticles. This is a molecule known to lower the levels of a protein that cancer stem cells need for survival. When the ammonium bicarbonate was hit with the near-infrared laser it caused the endosomes to burst and released the miR-34a, killing the cancer cell.
When they tested this approach in a mouse model of human prostate cancer it significantly reduced the size of the tumors.
Because near-infrared lasers penetrate to about half an inch this method could be used for tumors near the skin surface, and for deeper ones would only require a minimally invasive surgery to deliver the necessary dose of light.
Ammonium bicarbonate, the ingredient used to help the nanoparticles swell up, is used by the food industry for some baked goods such as cookies and crackers. It’s a little odd to think that something used in such tasty treats could also be potentially deadly – think about that next time you are browsing the cookie aisle at the supermarket.