In 2003, the National Cancer Institute (NCI; Bethesda, MD; www.cancer.gov) director Andrew von Eschenbach, MD, stated the organization’s Challenge Goal to the Nation: to eliminate the suffering and death due to cancer by 2015. In a nation that attributes more than half a million deaths each year to the disease, this is a challenge.
Curing cancer in the next decade may seem overly idealistic, but it is not infeasible, thanks to nanotechnology. Developments in the field may pave the way for a variety of nanodevices purposed for the detection, treatment, and prevention of cancer. If carried out from concept to completion, nanodevices may help curb instances of cancer and, ultimately, cure the disease.
NCI has taken a number of steps in an effort to secure its goal. Heavy funding for the NCI Alliance for Nanotechnology in Cancer enables focused R&D. In addition, the institute has drafted a comprehensive cancer nanotechnology plan, which identifies specific objectives and goals. The institute has also assembled a multidisciplinary team, which brings expertise in cancer biology, clinical oncology, engineering, and physical sciences, with hopes of facilitating progress.
Progress may come in the form of such proposed nanodevices as nanopores, nanoshells, and dendrimers. Nanopores could improve DNA sequencing to detect anomalies in genes, while nanoshells could destroy cancerous cells without harming healthy neighboring cells. The dendrimer embodies the ideal nanodevice, as it would theoretically carry out multiple tasks. Capabilities would include recognizing, killing, and the subsequent status reporting of cancer cells.
Among NCI’s most significant expectations are clues about tumor development, which may lead to improved methods of cancer detection and early treatment. “Our public health dilemma right now with most solid tumors is not being able to find disease before metastatic spread,” says Gregory Downing, MD, director of the office of technology and industrial relations for NCI. “The biggest impact could be on solid tumors, where we have nothing that provides us with sentinel vision of the disease before it’s too late.”
Understanding how cancer develops is one of the primary objectives of NCI. However, treatment and prevention of recurrence remain pressing issues as well. Nanotechnology-based probes and biosensing capabilities will allow physicians to more accurately assess just how aggressively to treat patients, according to Downing.
Cancer treatment is the area in which NCI anticipates the quickest results from nanotechnology. The organization speculates that nanoparticle-based drug-delivery systems and sensing or reporting systems will lead to targeted drug delivery to cancerous cells. Targeted drug delivery may prove less toxic than currently available chemotherapeutic agents, says Downing.
Despite advancements in manipulating nanotechnology for cancer-related research and development, several hurdles remain in NCI’s path to its goal. Obvious difficulties arise when working with parts invisible to the naked eye. Identifying parameters so that experiments can be reproduced and understanding interactions between physical materials and living systems are two of the challenges that researchers face, according to Downing.
Obstacles are apparent outside the lab as well. Nanotechnology has garnered criticism in terms of ethics and safety. As is the case with many governmental and nonprofit organizations dealing with nanotechnology, NCI underscores the need to properly educate the public. Though NCI and Downing admit that the effects of nanotechnology inside the body are still unknown, as is the toxicity of materials used in nanotechnology, they are quick to provide assurance that safe practices will be enforced.
The discrepancies that arise with nanotechnology research were the impetus behind establishing the National Characterization Laboratory (NCL). The NCL is responsible for crafting a universal vocabulary for nanotechnology in order to facilitate research. Also, the organization serves as a nanotechnology hub of sorts, providing a central resource for parameters and research so that scientists can build upon existing results or repeat experiments with ease.
Because of its extremely small components and complex technology, nanotechnology has yielded few concrete results as of yet. However, Downing points out that even if some concepts are not accomplished, the intense R&D is invaluable.
“To be candid, I think we need to see a real fundamental breakthrough in one element of cancer, that we couldn’t or can’t do with contemporary biology,” he says. “If there isn’t some sort of transformational aspect in which this has some impact on clinical medicine, I think we will have explored in depth the capabilities that these materials provide. I think that we would like to see what impact biology can have to help drive technology development.”
But if the plans fueled by nanotechnology do pan out, the results could have a global impact. Though attaining NCI’s goal may seem like a pipe dream now, nanotechnology may prove to be the factor that transforms the dream into a reality.