Mesothelioma is a rare and aggressive. Early diagnosis is important although prognosis is rarely good. Mesothelioma is caused by exposure to asbestos and begins in tissues of the mesothelium, usually in the lining of the lungs and chest cavity.
This kind of cancer is hard to treat. However, advances in nanotechnology may give hope to patients. Tiny images are used to diagnose the illness earlier, while nanoparticles show promise in targeting tumors directly with chemotherapy drugs. Ironically, some nanotechnology particles may actually contribute to the development of mesothelioma.
What is Nanotechnology?
Nanotechnology is a broad term for devices less than 100 nanometers in size. A nanometer is incredibly tiny, measuring only one-billionth of a meter. Currently, nanotechnology is used in all areas of science, including medicine. Tiny molecular devices are used to treat degenerative brain diseases like Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s. They are also used for dental surgery, in tissue engineering, in fighting antibiotic resistance, and for cancer treatment, including mesothelioma.
An Earlier Diagnosis with Nano Images
Because mesothelioma is tough to identify, it is often diagnosed in its later stages after it has metastasized. Many patients are misdiagnosed with more common illnesses like pneumonia or lung cancer before learning they have mesothelioma. Accurate diagnostic methods will lead to earlier diagnoses and potentially save more lives.
The nanotech firm CytoViva worked with German researchers to use nano-imaging for rapid, early, accurate mesothelioma diagnoses. Hyperspectral imaging is used to take tiny images of tissue samples, which are put together to make an image with ultra-high contrast. Each image is less than 100 nanometers across.
Researchers used images from thirty different patients to create an image library. Researchers use the library to compare samples of diagnosed and undiagnosed patients. If a patient’s tissue sample matches one in the library, they could be diagnosed with mesothelioma or another specific cancer. The researchers tested this technique using samples of tissues that had already been diagnosed and ran them through the image library. The results were quick and accurate.
Nanotechnology Particles to Deliver Treatment
Early, accurate diagnosis is a great start, but better treatments are also needed. Nanotechnology could deliver better and more effective treatments with fewer side effects. Early research is promising. One Australian patient even seems to have been cured using nanotechnology.
Researchers used nanoparticles containing micro RNA injected into the body and directed to tumors by targeted antibodies. These guided the particles to the tumor while ignoring other tissues. Once at the tumor, the particles released the micro RNA into cancer cells, inserting new genes to inhibit growth.
This nanoparticle treatment is being tested against different types of cancers with different medicines. Chemotherapy medications could be placed in the particles and delivered directly to cancer cells. Because these toxic drugs are injected and circulate through the entire body, they are not very specific. Instead, they target any living cells that grow and divide rapidly. Beacuase healthy ceels are affected along with cancer cells, chemotherapy causes uncomfortable and unhealthy side effects. Targeting cancer cells directly could eliminate those side effects.
One recent study used nanoparticles to deliver targeted treatment to cancer cells. Researchers visually proved its success using a special molecule alongside the nanoparticles and chemotherapy drugs that fluoresced green when cancer cells died. This process proved the drugs reached the tumor and killed cancer cells.
Nanoparticle treatment for cancer, including mesothelioma, is an exciting and ongoing line of research. Each new study shows more promise. It may not be long before this becomes standard treatment for cancer patients.
Ongoing Nanotechnology Research
Because nanotechnology holds such promising potential in cancer treatment, many research institutes are investing in further study. At the Institute of Bioengineering and Nanotechnology in Singapore, researchers are using nano-sized biochips to test drug efficacy on cancer cells and deliver individualized treatments.
The main goal of the Penn Center for Orphan Disease Research and Therapy at the University of Pennsylvania, is to develop and test nanoparticles for targeted drug delivery. The center recently received a $10 million gift toward that goal. New York University’s Langone Medical Center is working with high-tech equipment called a NanoString Technologies nCounter Analysis System. This cutting-edge technology will help researchers investigate cancer treatment with nanotechnology.
Some Nanotechnology May Contribute to Mesothelioma
Nanotechnology holds great promise for treating diseases like mesothelioma. However, some of these microscopic particles may also cause harm. According to research, nanotubes may cause damage when inhaled. This damage could be similar to that caused by airborne asbestos fibers. Studies show these long, thin tubes resemble asbestos fibers, act like asbestos fibers, and could potentially cause asbestos-related illnesses like mesothelioma.
Discovered only a few decades ago, nanotubes have many properties that make them a wonder material. This is eerily similar to asbestos, which was once held the same promise. Lightweight like plastic, nanotubes are stronger than steel. Asbestos was once prized for its light weight and the strength it added to other materials. Nanotubes have been used in research to produce batteries and electronics, engineering structures, and medicine. A study that compared nanotubes to asbestos found the particles caused damage in mice similar to that seen with asbestos fibers. Although it is not likely that nanotubes will often become airborne, the study warrants some concern.
Nanotechnology has great potential in medical care and will require ongoing research before used widely. Mesothelioma is a devastating cancer that difficult to treat and often fatal. Patients have little hope of survival because it is so aggressive and is diagnosed in later stages. Nanotechnology could address both issues. While more research is necessary, these technological advances could help make mesothelioma diagnoses more accurate and also advance treatments for this awful disease.
Page Medically Reviewed and Edited by Anne Courtney, AOCNP, DNP
Anne Courtney has a Doctor of Nursing Practice degree and is an Advanced Oncology Certified Nurse Practitioner. She has years of oncology experience working with patients with malignant mesothelioma, as well as other types of cancer. Dr. Courtney currently works at University of Texas LIVESTRONG Cancer Institutes.