Scientists at Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University have created a new biological marker for cancer patients that lights up tumor cells and treats disease with drugs at the same time.
The breakthrough biomarker is a nanophosphor particle ten thousand times smaller than a grain of sand, which lights up when it detects tumor cells to allow scientists to take a better look.
“This is the first time we are able to do bio-imaging, and potentially target the delivery of drugs at the same time, as proven in small animal tests,” Professor Joachim Loo, a nanotechnology and bio-imaging expert, said in a NTU statement. “Our breakthrough will open up new doors in the various fields of nanomedicine, bio-imaging and cancer therapeutics.”
Professor Loo said particles that are used for bio-imaging currently on the market are only good for imaging and not able to release drugs or sense the environment that is around the tumor. He said the nanoparticle is coated with a layer of anti-cancer drugs that can be released, if necessary.
The NTU team is working on loading multiple layers of drugs onto the marker. If successful, smaller doses can be administered to tumor cells more accurately.
The biomarker invented by professors Zhang Qichun and Loo has other advantages, too. It has twice the contrast of conventional dyes and is able to emit up to three different colors of light. This means that it allows for better differentiation between healthy cells and tumor cells.
The new biomarker also taps near-infrared light, which prevents any damage to healthy cells as it uses less energy than visible light.
“Near-infrared light can penetrate 3 to 4 cm beyond the skin to deep tissue, much deeper than visible light. It also does not cause any damage to healthy cells, unlike ultraviolet or visible light,” added Professor Zhang, a materials expert.
One of the difficulties with cancer drugs is the side effects patients have to endure. Since the team from NTU’s School of Materials Science and Engineering will be looking to load multiple layers of drugs into their biomarker that would enable doctors to release two or more drugs sequentially. Smaller, targeted doses will lead to fewer side effects.
The near-infrared light also prevents photo bleaching and the destruction of fluorescence dye, a weakness in conventional bio-makers. This new biomarker is non-toxic and flushed out of the body after two days.
The breakthrough has resulted in two papers published in Small, one of the world’s top scientific journals for material science and nanotechnology. The project, which took three years to complete, is jointly funded by NTU, the Ministry of Education and the National Research Foundation in Singapore.
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