Microscopic Trojan Horses

The biggest chal­lenge to killing cancer cells is the “pro­tec­tive armor” or shield around a tumor — that’s according to Pro­fessor Man­soor Amiji of the Bouve Col­lege of Health Sci­encesSchool of Phar­macy.

Amiji’s lab is trying to find ways to break through that bar­rier using nanomed­i­cine. Cancer cells grow in acidic, oxygen-​​deprived envi­ron­ments — not the most hos­pitable of vaca­tion homes. But the little beasts adapt to over­come those chal­lenges. “The cells become more aggres­sive because of the micro-​​environment,” says Amiji. “We’re trying to pro­gram them to become more tame. Cancer cells lack cell death mol­e­cules — we want to put them back in, bring cancer back to the base­line so the cells can be killed effi­ciently with lower doses of chemotherapy.”

Amiji calls the nano­ma­te­rials he’s using to target and kill cancer cells “smart lug­gage”: nano-​​sized par­ti­cles dec­o­rated with small mol­e­cules specif­i­cally designed to target the cancer cell and coax their way through the tough outer shell. Once a par­ticle finds itself inside a cancer cell, they are inter­nal­ized and release the toxic pay­load inside. This strategy also reduces exces­sive side effects of cancer drugs.

This Trojan horse may be small, but it’s no less aggres­sive toward its enemies.

Photo: GE Health­care, “Car­olin Zehet­meier, Mor­phosys AG, Ger­many” Jan­uary, 2010 via Flickr, Cre­ative Com­mons Attribution.