A material just one atom thick that is stronger than steel but flexes like rubber. A “mini-submarine” that can trick the immune system and deliver a payload of chemotherapy deep inside a tumour. They sound like the fantasies of science fiction writers, but they are among the discoveries being presented at Nano Israel 2010, a nanotech conference in Tel Aviv that has attracted researchers from across the science world, united by their work with the very, very small.
The 1,500 participants at the two-day meeting which ends today include chemists, physicists and medical researchers, all working with tiny structures around the thickness of a cell wall. ”We are all working to be able to manipulate molecules at an atomic level,” said Dan Peer, a professor at Tel Aviv University’s Cell Research and Immunology Department.
Physicists are developing new materials by removing or adding to existing structures and nano-medical researchers are building new ways to deliver drugs. Peer is trying to find out how to more effectively target cancer and the inflammation associated with diseases like multiple sclerosis by better directing toxic treatments like chemotherapy. ”Sometimes the drug is there, but it doesn’t operate in a targeted manner,” he said.
In such cases, scientists are trying to find ways to build “GPS systems” into the drugs so they travel directly to malignant cells or inflammation. One way of doing that is to attach the cancer treatment to a vitamin that tumours happily suck up, allowing the medication to penetrate the malignant cells with ease.
“You can potentially create new materials, new vehicles for drugs, like very small bubbles, like mini-submarines, which carry them into the body,” Peer said. Joseph Kost, a professor at Ben Gurion University of the Negev’s chemical engineering department, is working on a technique that delivers chemotherapy drug Cisplatin into tumours. The drug is carried by a tiny vessel through gaps of between 100-1000 nanometres in size, giving scientists a “therapeutic warhead,” he said. Once inside, researchers irradiate the drug vehicles with ultrasound, causing them to “explode” and disperse the treatment inside the tumour. Others are looking at ways to trick the body’s immune system to prevent it from identifying drug treatments as invading viruses and attacking them.