The research, published in the journal Cancer Research, was performed by Andreas Schatzlein of Cancer Research UK, based at the School of Pharmacy in London, and his colleagues, using mice as subjects.
Prior studies have shown the feasibility of gene therapy to shrink malignancies, and even cure some 80 percent of cancerous mice. The technique developed by Schatzlein, if proven effective in humans, could hold great promise for treatment of inoperable tumors in or near vital organs such as the brain or lungs. Human clinical trials are expected in “a couple of years.”
“This is the first time that nanoparticles have been shown to target tumors in such a selective way, and this is an exciting step forward in the field,” said Schatzlein, who found a way to distribute DNA molecules evenly over the extremely tiny particles.
When the nanoparticles enter the cell, he explained, the genes they carry respond to the cancerous environment by switching on, commanding the cells’ protein-making machinery to create substances that poison the cells.
The research team employed nuclear imaging using computed tomography to confirm that the nanoparticles had targeted only the malignant tissue, and that none had entered any of the healthy cells of the tumor-infested mice. They also performed post-mortem tests on the mice to double-check their results.
“Gene therapy is an exciting area of research, but targeting genetic changes to cancer cells has been a major challenge,” said Lesley Walker, an immunologist and director of cancer information for Cancer Research UK.