Self-Assembling Nanoparticles Help Detect Cancer Cells Earlier

Image Credit: Imperial College London 

According to the World Health Organization, cancer is among the leading causes of death worldwide, accounting for 8.2 million deaths in 2012. Researchers from Imperial College London have recently developed a self-assembling nanoparticle which could improve MRI detection of cancer cells.

Seeking out Receptors

The team of researchers developed this new nanoparticle to help boost the effectiveness of Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) scanning by directly identifying the receptors which are found in cancerous cells.

Covered in a special protein coating the nanoparticles look to identify the specific signals given off by tumours. Once found, the nanoparticles begin to interact with the cancerous cell which causes them to lose their protein coating. This interaction causes the nanoparticle to self-assemble into a larger particle which becomes more visible on a MRI scan.

By improving the sensitivity of an MRI examination, our aim is to help doctors spot something that might be cancerous much more quickly.

Professor Nicholas Long - Department of Chemistry Imperial College London

Recent Studies

In a recent study the scientists used cancer cells in a mouse model to determine the effect of the new technology compared with commonly used imaging agents. They found that the nanoparticles resulted in a stronger signal and as a result the MRI scan produced a clearer image of the tumour.

jovan vitanovski - Image Credit - 

Professor Nicholas Long and his team say the nanoparticle actively increases the sensitivity of the MRI scan and will ultimately help doctors detect cancerous cells at a much earlier point in time.

Professor Nicholas Long said "This would enable patients to receive effective treatment sooner, which would hopefully improve survival rates from cancer."

Improving Sensitivity

The team are now working on news ways of improving the effectiveness of the nanoparticle.

We would like to improve the design to make it even easier for doctors to spot a tumour and for surgeons to then operate on it.  We’re now trying to add an extra optical signal so that the nanoparticle would light up with a luminescent probe once it had found its target, so combined with the better MRI signal it will make it even easier to identify tumours.

Professor Nicholas Long - Department of Chemistry Imperial College London

One problem the scientists faced was making sure that when they injected the non-toxic nanoparticle into mice, it would not become so big when self-assembling that it would cause damage. To test the potential issue the team injected the nanoparticle into a saline solution inside a petri dish first. They monitored the rate of growth over a four hour period and the results showed that the nanoparticle grew from 100 to 800 nanometres – still small enough to not cause any harm to a patient.

Looking Forward

The team’s new nanoparticle technology offers exciting promise for the early detection of cancer and could also help increase patient recovery.

Dr Juan Gallo from the Department of Surgery and Cancer at Imperial College London said “We’re now looking at fine tuning the size of the final nanoparticle so that it is even smaller but still gives an enhanced MRI image. If it is too small the body will just secrete it out before imaging, but too big and it could be harmful to the body. Getting it just right is really important before moving to a human trial.”

We may still be a long way off from seeing this technology used, but it could offer doctors a stronger weapon in the fight against cancer. 


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