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Mesothelioma and Nanotechnology

Mesothelioma is an aggressive kind of cancer that is most often deadly and has a negative prognosis when diagnosed. It begins in the mesothelium tissue, in most cases in the tissue that lines the lungs and chest cavity. Most cases of this kind of mesothelioma are caused by exposure to asbestos and are very difficult to treat.

New advances in nanotechnology may give new hope to patients receiving a mesothelioma diagnosis. Tiny images are being used to diagnose the illness earlier, while nanoparticles are showing great promise in being able to target the delivery of effective drugs to tumors. On the other side of nanotechnology developments, some of these particles may actually be harmful and contribute to the development of mesothelioma.


What is Nanotechnology?

Nanotechnology is a broad term used in science to describe anything that is less than 100 nanometers in size. A nanometer is one-billionth of a meter. Nanotechnology is being used in all areas of science, including medicine. Some of the ways in which tiny, molecular devices are being used in medicine include treating degenerative brain diseases like Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s, using small particles in dental surgery, in tissue engineering, in fighting antibiotic resistance, and in the treatment of cancers, including mesothelioma.

Making an Earlier Diagnosis with Nano Images

One of the reasons that mesothelioma is such a deadly type of cancer is that it is often diagnosed in the later stages, when it has already spread. A major reason for this is the fact that mesothelioma is difficult to diagnose. Many patients go through several misdiagnoses for more common illnesses like pneumonia or long cancer, before finally getting a diagnosis of mesothelioma. Any strategy that can be employed to make a more accurate diagnosis will lead to earlier diagnoses and may save lives because those patients will be more likely to be eligible for aggressive treatments.

A nanotechnology company called CytoViva came together with researchers in Germany to use nano-imaging to make rapid, early diagnoses of mesothelioma that could be more accurate than any other diagnostic techniques. Hyperspectral imaging is used in this strategy to take tiny images of samples of tissues from patients. These are then put together to make an image with ultra-high contrast. Each image is less than 100 nanometers across.

The researchers created these images for thirty different patients and used them as a spectral library of images that could be compared to samples from undiagnosed patients. If a patient’s tissue sample is a match for one in the library, it would mean a diagnosis of mesothelioma or another specific type of cancer. The researchers tested this technique using samples of tissues that had already been diagnosed and ran them through the spectral library. The result was quick and accurate diagnoses.

Nanotechnology Particles to Deliver Treatment

An early, accurate diagnosis is a great start in using nanotechnology to beat this insidious disease, but better treatments are needed too. Nanotechnology may be able to deliver better and more effective treatments with fewer side effects. The research is early, but promising, and in an Australia, at least one patient seems to have been cured of mesothelioma using a nanotechnology technique.

The researchers used nanoparticles containing micro RNA. The nanoparticles were then injected into the body and were directed right to the tumors through the use of targeted antibodies. These acted like guides to get the particles to the tumor while ignoring other tissues. Once at the site of the tumor, the particles could release the micro RNA into cancer cells. There, these small molecules inserted new genes to stop the growth of the cancer cells.

This nanoparticle treatment strategy is being tested with different types of cancers and different medicines. Anything can be packed into the particle, and with the guidance of antibodies, directed at specific cancer cells. For instance, chemotherapy medications could be placed in the particles and delivered directly to the cancer cells. Currently these drugs are administered to the entire body and are not very specific. They target any living cells that grow and divide rapidly, which means that they cause a lot of uncomfortable side effects. By targeting cancer cells only, those side effects could be avoided.

In one recent study using nanoparticles to deliver targeted treatment to cancer cells, researchers were able to visually prove that the strategy worked. They used a special molecule along with the nanoparticles and chemotherapy drugs that fluoresced green when cancer cells died. This gave the researchers a clear image and proof that the drugs were reaching the tumor and killing the cancer cells.

Nanoparticle treatment for cancer, including mesothelioma, is an exciting line of research and one that will continue. Each new study shows more promising results and it may not be long before this becomes a treatment method that can be used on a majority of cancer patients, many of whom had little hope of survival.

Ongoing Nanotechnology Research

With the promise of nanotechnology to treat and possibly cure difficult cancers like mesothelioma, many research institutes are investing in further research. These include the Institute of Bioengineering and Nanotechnology in Singapore where researchers are using nano-sized biochips to test how effective drugs are on cancer cells and to deliver individualized treatments to patients.

At the University of Pennsylvania the main goal of the Penn Center for Orphan Disease Research and Therapy is to develop and test nanoparticles for the targeted delivery of drugs. The Center recently received a $10 million gift to work toward the goal of making these treatments work. New York University’s Langone Medical Center is working with a high-tech piece of equipment called a NanoString Technologies nCounter Analysis System. It will help researchers investigate cancer and how to treat it at the molecular level using nanotechnology.

Some Nanotechnology May Contribute to Mesothelioma

Nanotechnology holds great promise for treating diseases like mesothelioma, but some of these tiny particles may also cause harm. Nanotubes, according to research, may cause damage when inhaled, damage similar to that caused by mesothelioma-causing asbestos fibers. Studies have shown that these long, thin tubes resemble asbestos fibers and act like asbestos fibers.

Nanotubes were discovered a couple of decades ago and they have many properties that make them a kind of wonder material. They are light like plastic, but even stronger than steel. These nanotubes have been used in research for batteries and electronics, engineering structures, and medicine. The study that compared nanotubes to asbestos used mice and found that the particles caused damage similar to that seen with asbestos fibers. Currently, it is not likely that these nanotubes will often become airborne as asbestos does, so it is not a great concern for most people.

Mesothelioma is a difficult cancer. It comes with little hope of surviving, largely because it is aggressive and because it gets diagnosed in later stages. Nanotechnology could address both of these issues. While more research is needed, these technological advances could help make mesothelioma diagnoses more accurate and help kill the cancer cells in tumors.

Page edited by Dave Foster

Dave has been a mesothelioma Patient Advocate for over 10 years. He consistently attends all major national and international mesothelioma meetings. In doing so, he is able to stay on top of the latest treatments, clinical trials, and research results. He also personally meets with mesothelioma patients and their families and connects them with the best medical specialists and legal representatives available.

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