Healthbeat Report: The Small Wonder

February 27, 2009 7:32:49 AM PST
Tailor made medicine could make the cancer journey less painful. The drugs that often save people from cancer can also leave them with terrible even life threatening side effects.

The answer may not be replacing medications such as chemotherapy but instead designing a better plan of attack on a very smart but tiny level.

It's called nanotechnology and it's ready to revolutionize medicine as we know it.

Radiation and chemotherapy are powerful and effective treatments that kill cancer cells. But they can also destroy healthy cells.

Internationally recognized chemist Fraser Stoddart knows what the grueling battle entails.

"A harrowing experience to watch, you know, someone you love being slowly killed off by the administration of hard drugs," said J. Fraser Stoddart, Ph.D., nanotechnology expert, Northwestern University.

For 12 years his beloved wife Norma battled breast cancer. Eventually the disease and the treatments proved to be too much.

He's now left with a burning passion to find a safer, more effective way to get breast cancer drugs right to the problem, leaving the healthy tissue alone.

The answer could be the science of the very small.

It's called nanotechnology and the idea is to engineer microscopic particles to combat diseases on the same minuscule scale at which diseases develop.

The tiny particles will be very complex and smart. They're refereed to as nano-machines At Northwestern's International Institute for Nanotechnology they're being put to the test.

"If we can someway package the drug up in a nanoscale environment into a nano container and then we have some way of making this nano container drive around the body and go to places we want it to go?go to cancer cells but don't go to cells in the stomach or cells that produce hair," said Dr. Stoddart.

What researchers are referring looks like colored powdered. But it is actually teeny tiny glass beads and inside each is a small amount of a well known anti-tumor drug.

The microscopic beads or nano machines would be injected or ingested and then they would head for a tumor. Once at the tumor site, the microscopic glass spheres would open up precisely spilling out the medication.

"So they would kill a certain tissue or tumorous tissue and not effect all the normal tissues and cells around that," said Niveen Khashab, Ph.D., chemist, Northwestern University.

Scientists across the country are testing several kinds of delivery systems, including glass beads, bio degradable silicon even carbon.

The trick will be making sure it's safe for use inside the body.

In Germany doctors are using nano technology in the form of magnetic powder to treat brain tumors and prostate cancer.

Once the particles reach the tumor a magnetic field then heats and destroys the cancer.

Nanomedicine may not cure all cancers but the exact delivery of medication could contain the disease for a lifetime.

"The person would probably die for some other reason than the cance. That's my dream," said Dr. Stoddart.

Right now most trials are still at the chemical level and years away before use on humans. But the National Cancer Institute is betting nanotechnology will radically change the way we diagnose, treat and even prevent cancer sooner than most people realize. It has now established the NCI Alliance for Nanotechnolgy in Cancer. For more information, visit

Sir J. Fraser Stoddart
Northwestern Dept. Chemistry
2145 Sheridan Rd.

Natalie Wong Camarata, Media Relations
Health Science Center at Houston

International Institute for Nanotechnology

Institute for Nanotechnology