Nanotechnology: A New Chapter of Medicine in Oncology Research

Over the last 40 years, Nanotechnology has become a premier topic within research circles, and the premise has already been applied to some success within modern medicine. Identified as a self-contained unit measuring between 1 and 100 nanometers in size, this tiny tech is closer in size to a strand of DNA (roughly 2 nanometers) than a single strand of hair (more than 80,000 nanometers). However, small as it may be, nanotech has enormous promise in the fight against cancer.

Yet the question remains – how can promise translate to actuality for patients?

New early research from MedImmune Scientists and collaborators --­including findings newly published on Oct 8 in Nature Communications and previously published findings in the Journal of Controlled Release-- suggests that the answers may lie not with the nanoparticles themselves, but in the way scientists leverage them to equip the immune system.

So what is a nanoparticle, and how could it help patients?

Within medicine, these homogeneous systems combine synthetic and natural material to create a particle capable of carrying out a specific function. In cancer research more specifically, the traditional thought was to have nanoparticles that combine a treatment with a tumor targeting mechanism, to deliver cytotoxic agents directly to the tumor cells, with minimal damage to the healthy cells around it.  

One challenge, however, is that the nanoparticles rarely found their target due to intrinsic biodistribution of the particles and the resulting side effects.

So what has changed?

We are beginning to understand that the answer to the targeting problem might be that we were focusing too closely on reaching the tumor itself. According to our own Dr. Anand Subramony, “You don’t have to get the nanoparticles exactly to the tumors in order to have the necessary effect. The advent of immunotherapy has begun to show the potential applicability of nanoparticles in a different light, to target the immune system.”

In this approach, nanoparticles containing the right molecules may positively influence a patient’s outcome by targeting the immune system to help overcome cancer rather than attempting to be a hyper-targeted “magic bullet”.

What could it mean for future research?

This new method of targeting allowed us to turn the biodistribution challenges of nanoparticles into opportunities. A benefit already being observed in recent animal studies with researchers from Memorial Sloan Kettering and Cornell University that explore nanoparticle applications in HER2 positive breast cancer.

And the implications don’t stop there. Based on our scientists’ expertise the company is systematically investigating how nanoparticles could trigger various immune system cell types such as T-cells, memory cells or dendritic cells to attack tumors. Even exploring ways to leverage nanoparticles’ tendency to be taken up by macrophages, then get deposited in bone marrow and the spleen, to elicit immune production, antitumor immunity, or memory.

According to Dr. Subramony, nanotechnology is being explored for other targeted delivery applications in the hope of developing safer and more efficacious treatment options.

“From passive nanoparticles to intelligent nanobots we are exploring countless opportunities for new innovations with the hope of delivering meaningful treatments to those living with cancer,” says Dr. Subramony.

For more on our latest studies related to nanotechnology, check out:

Journal of Controlled Release

Nature Communications