When you have cancer, you want a treatment that can kill cancer cells. That stops cancer from growing and spreading.

Ideally, you want to do that without harming healthy cells.

With some powerful cancer treatments, that’s a problem.

Aurora kinase inhibitors are effective cancer killers. They also have a downside. They’re highly toxic to patients.

That’s because the drugs find their way to healthy tissues and organs, where they can cause serious damage.

In some cases, potentially effective cancer drugs have turned out to be too toxic to develop.

If drugs could be delivered directly to tumor sites, it would prevent damage to healthy cells. Patients would have access to potent cancer drugs with fewer risks.

Research is increasingly turning to nanotechnology to achieve that goal.

In a paper published in the journal Science Transitional Medicine, a team of researchers at AstraZeneca and Bind Therapeutics detail how they created a nanoparticle formulation of a cancer drug.

Basically, they found a way to eradicate cancer cells without harming healthy tissue.

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What the Research Showed

The researchers used rats and mice with human tumors. The rodents had colorectal tumors with diffuse large B cell lymphoma.

Accurins are polymeric particles that encapsulate charged drugs through ion pairing. The research team used Accurins to deliver and control release of the Aurora B kinase.

The nanoparticles accumulated in the tumors, right where they were needed. The Accurins allowed the continued release of the drug over several days.

The result was a better therapeutic index. Tumors stopped growing and started shrinking.

When compared with the parent drug, blood toxicity levels were lower. It was more effective, yet there were fewer side effects.

It worked in rodents, but will it work in humans? A lot more research is needed to find out.

“We cannot be certain that the same pattern of Accurin distribution will translate from the non-clinical models to humans,” Karen Birmingham, Ph.D., global science media relations director at AstraZeneca told Healthline.

The researchers still need to figure out how to deliver the intravenous drug to patients safely and effectively. It will take some time to explore dosing and scheduling of the drug.

Clinical trials are in progress.

Read More: Trials for New Cancer Treatments Reach Only a Tiny Fraction of Patients »

The Nanotechnology Revolution

The number of nanotechnology drugs that are approved or in late-stage clinical development is growing, according to Birmingham, and it show the increasing importance of the technology to cancer treatment.

“What’s exciting about this work is that while these products all rely on traditional chemotherapy drugs as payloads, the AZD2811 nanoparticle represents the first clinical application of nanotechnology to molecularly targeted drugs,” she said, “which are a rapidly growing component of the armamentarium against cancer.”

Birmingham believes the successful application of nanotechnology to this new class of cancer drugs could open the door to many powerful new therapies. But it’s not something that can be rushed.

“We started the first step at the end of last year; the evaluation of clinical safety and pharmacokinetics of our selected novel nanoparticle formulation in a phase 1 study,” she said. “If appropriate, the next step would be to assess preliminary signs of clinical efficacy.”

Birmingham said drug development proceeds through carefully regulated steps. It’s a process that can take years.

According to the NCI Alliance for Nanotechnology in Cancer, the first nanotechnology-based cancer drugs are already on the market. Two of these are Doxil and Abraxane. Others are in clinical trials.

When it comes to cancer, early treatment is best. Nanotechnology may help with that, too.

Researchers at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center want to use nanotechnology to detect cancer. They have developed a technique to detect disease biomarkers in the form of nucleic acids.

That may make it possible to detect cancer with a simple finger prick blood test.

Nanotechnology research is rapidly advancing. There’s no telling how far it will go in the fight against cancer.

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