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Can we diagnose and destroy cancer in one sitting?

Researchers announce the creation of a single nanoparticle, traceable in real time via MRI, which can tag cancer cells and kill them with heat within the very same procedure.

Let's say you find a lump somewhere and decide to go in for an exam. And let's say there was a little box to check that allows you to get a shot that targets and kills cancerous cells right then and there, no surgery, no waiting, and possibly no radiation or chemo therapy down the road. Would you check the box?

These nanoshells target tumors in the lungs and, upon excitation with near-infrared light, destroy only the cancerous tissue. The Alliance for NanoHealth

Since time matters when it comes to cancer, the creation of a single nanoparticle--traceable in real time via MRI--that tags and zaps cancer cells all in one procedure has a team of researchers raising their eyebrows in hopeful arches.

"Some of the most essential questions in nanomedicine today are about biodistribution--where particles go inside the body and how they get there," says Naomi Halas, a nanomedicine pioneer at Rice University in Houston, Texas, whose findings have just been published in Advanced Functional Materials. "Noninvasive tests for biodistribution will be enormously useful on the path to FDA approval, and this technique--adding MRI functionality to the particle you're testing and using for therapy--is a very promising way of doing this."

The all-in-one particles are modeled on nanoshells, a cancer treatment Halas invented in the '90s that are now in human clinical trials. The shells harvest laser light that would typically pass through the body harmlessly and convert that light into heat that destroys cancerous cells.

Halas, who designed the new particle with assistant professor Amit Joshi of Baylor College of Medicine's Division of Molecular Imaging, added a fluorescent dye to the nanoshell so that it glows when hit by near-infrared (NIR) light.

Tracking the nanoparticles by their fluorescence, the team confirmed that the particles do indeed target cancer cells and kill them with heat. Even though human clinical trials are probably a few years out, the hope is that eventually patients will be able to get a shot with a cocktail of these nanoparticles and antibodies tailored to specific cancer types, and then sit back and watch the war on tumors in real time via MRI and/or NIR imaging.

Halas adds that the team has been careful to choose components that are either already approved for medical use or are already in clinical trials: "We're putting together components that all have good, proven track records."