Cancer, unfortunately, is widespread throughout the world. It affects millions of lives, in many different ways, on a daily basis. Before we dive into the topic of nanomedicine and nanoparticles, lets first look at the current state of cancer treatment.
Most therapeutic options for cancer are detrimental to the body They don’t just kill cancer cells, they can also damage healthy tissues causing serious side effects.
Cancer chemotherapy drugs suffer from poor biodistribution and, therefore, require high doses.  Resistance can also develop to one or more of the drugs being used on a regular basis. This means that oncologists must continually develop new drug “cocktails” to keep treating their patients.
Some of the drugs used, particularly in later rounds of chemotherapy, may also be relatively ineffective.
So far, the benefits of chemotherapy have outweighed the risks but with the dawn of the age of nanomedicine and nanoparticles, the situation may soon change.
What is nanomedicine?
Nanomedicine is the medical application of nanotechnology. According to Johns Hopkins:
“Nanomedicine can include a wide range of applications, including biosensors, tissue engineering, diagnostic devices, and many others. [It involves]…harnessing nanotechnology to more effectively diagnose, treat, and prevent various diseases.”
It also involves the development of new approaches to more efficiently deliver medications to the site of action with the aim of improving outcomes with less medication (and fewer medication side effects).
The use of nanoparticles for drug delivery
Nanoparticles are amongst the most promising treatment options in oncology, They have the potential to revolutionize the usual therapies by improving the usage and delivery of chemotherapy drugs .
The ability to control nanoparticle shape, size, and surface, as well as their ability to transport and deliver drugs to specific locations in the body, make nanoparticles highly useful in oncology.
Nanoparticles use has also spread to other areas of the medical world, including:
- research labs
- clinical trials
- the treatment of diseases other than cancer
Can we stop chemotherapy side effects?
Almost. Cancer is often debilitating with few treatment options that include surgery, chemotherapy, radiation, and immunotherapy. The side effects of these treatments can be detrimental to a patient’s way of living. They can often experience insomnia, nausea, vomiting, and weight loss among a long list of other adverse reactions .
With a cancer diagnosis and treatment, a patient’s quality of life can quickly nose-dive. But with nanomedicine, patients may experience a dramatic decrease in chemotherapy side effects, including a reduction of toxicity from the drugs used . This, combined with all the other possible advantages of administering nanoparticles, makes nanomedicine an attractive new cancer therapy option.
What can nanoparticles offer?
Nanoparticles are attractive treatment options because their outer surfaces can be modified to attack specific cancer cells. They are biocompatible and biodegradable. They also offer increased stability to their drug payload.
Other possible advantages include:
- Increased treatment efficacy
- Increased localization
- Decreased toxic side effects to drugs
- Reduced drug dose, and more
Types of nanoparticles
There are three main types of nanoparticles  as follows:
- Lipid-based nanoparticles
Lipid-based nanoparticles have many advantages over other variations of nanoparticles. This accounts for their increased use in the delivery of drugs. Lipid-based nanoparticles have better biocompatibility than other nanoparticles. This means they work better with living tissue. Lipid-based nanoparticles are also more versatile, making them a better option in many therapies, like cancer treatments.
Liposomes are formulated with a wide range of natural, synthetic, and modified lipids to help them deliver drugs as well as contrast agents for medical imaging. Liposomes are used to treat cancer, fungal infections, vaccines, and more.
- Polymeric nanoparticles
Polymeric nanoparticles are currently used for the following:
- The distribution of chemotherapy drugs in tumors
- The delivery of biomolecules for genetic medicine
- Co-delivery of image contrasts for drug therapy
Polymer-based nanoparticles improve the efficiency of drugs as well as decrease drug side effects and toxicity.
How do nanoparticles deliver drugs?
Efficiently. The purpose of nanoparticles is to deliver drugs directly to the cancer cells and not the rest of the body. They are administered intravenously and are then moved around the body by the circulatory system.
Nanoparticles are designed to locate and then accumulate on the cancer tissue, penetrating through the walls of a tumor to deliver the chemotherapy drug they carry . This way, the chemotherapy drug is delivered directly to the site of cancer versus distributed throughout the body. Mass distribution to both diseased and healthy tissues is usually the cause of drug side effects.
There are different methods of releasing the drugs being administered via nanomedicine :
- Sustained release
- Stimuli-responsive (pH-sensitive, enzyme sensitive, etc.)
Nanoparticles can also be designed to transform under different conditions to either release or hold onto their drugs.
Nanoparticles aren’t only for cancer
While widely used for cancer therapies, nanoparticles are also used for diagnostics, a type of nanomedicine referred to as nanodiagnostics. Several nanoparticle formulations have already been designed for diagnostic use only. Though currently in limited use, nanodiagnostics is a growing field with imaging applications, such as use in magnetic resonance monitoring of tumor blood vessels and coronary arteries in patients.
On top of diagnostics, nanoparticles are also used in research opportunities, the treatment of cardiovascular diseases, and ‘theranostics,’ which is a term used to describe pre-clinical research and trials of drug therapies and other treatments.
There are still production challenges to solve
The production and use of nanoparticles face many challenges , including:
- A lack of consistency
The creation process for lipid-based nanoparticles has a significant variation between each batch developed.
- Difficulty in scale-up
The manufacturing process is challenging to develop and maintain to the point that significant, quality nanoparticles can be produced.
- Require sophisticated skills to make
The production of nanoparticles is time-consuming and extremely labor-intensive, requiring specialized knowledge and tools.
Related content: Why Drug Discovery is So Hard and High Risk
The bottom line: future is looking good
Nanoparticles are intended to maximize the benefit/risk ratio of therapies. Rather than causing many debilitating symptoms in the hopes of curing one disease, like current cancer treatments, nanoparticles are designed to minimize any side effects while treating that same disease.
But the technology isn’t 100 percent ready for prime time yet. More research is needed and more dollars must be spent on analyzing both the effectiveness of nanomedicine as well as the long-term effects on the body.
While lipid-based nanoparticles are the most promising prospect because they are made of natural elements and have more advantages than other types of nanoparticles, they are not yet a perfect solution for drug delivery. We need more significant investments in clinical trials in both the government and private sectors to advance the technology.
Nanomedicine is used to treat a variety of different diseases and conditions, but it is in the oncology segment where nanoparticles see the most use and the most promise. To date, there are 51 nanopharmaceuticals approved for use in clinical practice. More are being studied in clinical trials for cancer and other diseases.
Clearly, nanomedicine is a field to watch closely. I believe with continual research, trials, and advancements, the future of nanomedicine and nanoparticles is bright.
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Additional content by this author: What is the Value of iPSC Technology in Cardiac Research?
Related content: Why Drug Discovery is So Hard and High Risk
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Chieh-Ju Lu, D.Phil
Chieh-Ju Lu, D.Phil. completed his postdoctoral fellowship training at University of British Columbia. Michael Smith Laboratories, 2016-2019; University of Oxford, D.Phil. (Ph.D.) Degree - Physiology, Anatomy & Genetics, 2010-2015; Imperial College London, M.Sc. Degree - Pathology of Viruses and Molecular Biology, 2009- 2010; and University College London, B.Sc. Degree - Biomedical Science, 2006-2009.
Chieh-Ju is a research scientist with over 9 years of experience in biomedical research, including years of cross-functional project management, stakeholders management, and customer-facing experience. His multi-disciplined background includes drug (biologics) development, translational research and genetic engineering. In addition, he is an innovative copywriter with a passion for business development, product marketing and content communication.