Some­times the best solu­tions are the sim­plest ones. This is the phi­los­ophy that North­eastern pro­fessor Vladimir Torchilin and his team took in new research car­ried out in col­lab­o­ra­tion with physics pro­fessor Dmitri Lapotko from Rice Uni­ver­sity and pre­sented in a paper pub­lished Sunday in the journal Nature Med­i­cine.

It’s an absolutely new con­cept for treating cancer,” said Torchilin, a Dis­tin­guished Pro­fessor of Phar­ma­ceu­tical Sci­ences and director of the School of Phar­macy’s Center for Phar­ma­ceu­tical Biotech­nology and Nanomed­i­cine. “There are sev­eral fac­tors com­bined in a very simple way, which results in a syn­er­gistic effect against the tumor.”

Together with the physi­cists at Rice, Torchilin’s team cre­ated a cancer treat­ment approach that com­bines chem­ical and phys­ical modal­i­ties to more effi­ciently destroy a tumor while leaving nearby healthy cells intact.

You start with two very well known and simple things,” Torchilin said. “Nanomed­i­cines and nanopar­ti­cles.” Both allow clin­i­cians to steer mate­rials to spe­cific cells in the body using recog­ni­tion fac­tors that are dis­pro­por­tion­ately expressed on cancer cells. In the case of drug-​​loaded tumor-​​targeted nanomed­i­cines, cancer cells wel­come much higher con­cen­tra­tions of drug mol­e­cules. In the case of nanopar­ti­cles, it’s tiny tumor-​​targeted crumbs of gold that end up inside the tumor cells.

Both methods are com­monly used, but this is the first time they have been com­bined in a single ther­a­peutic approach, explained Torchilin, who received the 2013 Blaise Pascal Medal for Bio­med­ical Sci­ence from the Euro­pean Academy of Sci­ence for his out­standing con­tri­bu­tion to sci­ence and tech­nology and the pro­mo­tion of excel­lence in research and education.

So now you have normal cells with very few drug par­ti­cles and gold par­ti­cles, and cancer cells with a lot of those,” he said. “When those par­ti­cles come into the cell—just because of the way cells deal with for­eign particles—they form clus­ters.” In cancer cells, these clus­ters will be large while in normal cells they will be small.

Next, the cells are irra­di­ated with a laser beam, which inter­acts with such clus­ters and pro­vokes a kind of a mini-​​explosion inside the cancer cell. Not only does this dis­rupt the phys­ical struc­ture of the cell from the inside out, it also breaks the nanomed­i­cine delivery system con­taining the drug mol­e­cules, causing a simul­ta­neous and mas­sive drug release, Torchilin said.

In normal cells with small clus­ters, the explo­sion won’t happen or it will be very small so you cannot damage normal cells,” he said. “But in a cancer cell you have a large cluster, so the bubble will be big, which can damage the cell. But, simul­ta­ne­ously, like any strong strike, it will release the drug.”

Each part of the treat­ment is nec­es­sary and works in con­cert with the others to create con­cur­rent chem­ical and phys­ical attacks on the cancer cell, while leaving healthy cells rel­a­tively unharmed. “You use the stan­dard things,” Torchilin said. “You just use them all together. Simple.”