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While it is not yet an imminent miracle cure for cancer, one day in the future the use of nanoparticles may herald a complete cure for some types of cancer, even those disseminated varieties that are currently difficult to treat.
A University of Leicester research project has received funding of £102,944 from the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) to produce new types of magnetic nanoparticles for use in cancer diagnosis and cancer treatment. The project aims to solve some of the technological problems involved with using magnetic nanoparticles (particles containing just a few hundred atoms) in medical applications, including targeted drug delivery, ultra-high sensitivity detection of tumours and cancer treatments. The research project spans several departments and is being run by Dr Andrew Ellis, Department of Chemistry, Prof. Chris Binns, Department of Physics & Astronomy, and Prof. Kilian Mellon, Department of Cancer Studies and Molecular Medicine.
Prof Binns commented: “At Leicester we are building a unique source of magnetic nanoparticles in which each one has a layered structure of different materials (like a nano-onion). This means that you can design suitable magnetic properties into each nanoparticle to perform a specific task. If the particles are then coated with a final shell of gold they can be attached to biological molecules (such as drugs or antibodies) to perform the diagnosis and therapies described above.”
A novel process for making magnetic nanoparticles will be used, based on layer-by-layer synthesis of nanoparticles inside the supercold, superfluid environment of a liquid helium droplet. This will enable the design of nanoparticles with a degree of control that has hitherto not been possible. The flexibility of the synthetic scheme extends beyond magnetic nanoparticle production, allowing the systematic design of entirely new classes of nanoparticles. Nanotechnology is showing enormous promise as a provider of new tools for probing and manipulating biological systems. Particles with diameters of a few nanometres are sufficiently small that they can readily pass along narrow blood capillaries and may also pass through cell and nuclear membranes.
Prof Binns added: “The main technological problem is that the particles are formed in the gas-phase in ultra-clean vacuum conditions and we have to get them somehow from that environment into a liquid suspension in which they can be attached to biological molecules. Our project is focused on testing ways of doing this and we hope that by the end, in 18 months’ time, we will have magnetic nanoparticles with attached bio-molecules ready for testing in vitro.”
Prof Binns emphasised that this does not mean a cure for cancer within that time framework.
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