How do you defeat a cancer cell? You interrupt the processes it needs to stay alive and keep causing damage. What do cancer cells need? A steady diet of calcium and potassium ions flowing in and out, for starters. Interrupting this flow, a process called ion channel disruption, works, but kills healthy cells, too. What if there was a way to target only the cancer cells and leave the healthy ones to continue their good work?
This is precisely the question that , along with their Italian colleagues, have posed. To answer it, they turned to piezoelectricity—an electric charge that accumulates in solid organic materials including bone, DNA, and certain proteins. Fill a cancerous body with a dose of piezoelectric nanoparticles, squash them with ultrasound, and the nanoparticles produce a “low-intensity electric stimulation” that disrupts ion pathways and ultimately kills off cells.
From here, it gets a bit more complicated. To ensure the nanoparticles targeted cancer cells and left the healthy ones alone, the team wrapped the particles in a polymer studded with antibodies that would attach to receptors associated with a specific type of cancer cell.
, for example, is a highly malignant central nervous system tumor that grows from glial cells in the brain. The membranes of these cancer cells release a that’s distinct from healthy cell receptors and acts like a flashing cancer beacon. Marino and Almici bathed a biocompatible nanoparticle called barium titanate with antibodies that would affix themselves to this brain cancer beacon, effectively turning them into “.”
The method has been tested on lab-grown tumors designed to simulate a tumor in a brain. After blasting the lab tumors with ultrasound and then administering a common chemotherapy drug, they found the drug was more effective. This is great news for brain cancer patients who have developed a resistance to chemotherapy, a proven obstacle to successful treatment. The approach could also lessen the likelihood of disease recurrence due to microscopic tumors left behind after surgery.
Of course, lab tumors cannot perfectly replicate the conditions inside living human brains. The team will soon develop more complex models on which to test their treatment. They’ll also experiment with nanoparticles of different shapes and sizes as some are better suited to piezoelectric activity than others. Who knew?
This team of Italian scientists did, fortunately. Stay tuned for their next dispatch of game-changing cancer research.