60 Seconds with Jonathan Lovell

Tiny capsules called nanoballoons are 10,000 times smaller than a grain of sand, but they can pack an awesome punch. Just ask UB biomedical engineer Jonathan Lovell. He is studying how the diminutive devices could deliver anti-cancer medicine directly to tumors, precluding the need to blitz the entire body with toxic drugs.


Lovell’s nanoballoons open and flood mouse tumors with chemo when they’re exposed to laser light. Photo: Jonathan Lovell


In the absence of laser light, the balloons stay closed, releasing only tiny amounts of the drug. Photo: Jonathan Lovell

“It’s essentially a little container, and you can put stuff inside of it—in our case, anti-cancer drugs.”
Jonathan Lovell, UB biomedical engineer

What’s a nanoballoon?
It’s essentially a little container, and you can put stuff inside of it—in our case, anti-cancer drugs. Then, you inject the balloons into the body, and they navigate through various environments in the blood.

How do you get them to pop open and deliver their payload?
The ones we’re working on are triggered by light. So if there’s a tumor in the pancreas, we shine a laser on the pancreas, and the balloons open up. Whatever’s on the inside of them will go outside.

Wouldn’t that involve surgery?
It might involve putting a fiber-optic cable into the tumor, but this can be done with minimal invasion.

Why is this better than traditional ways of fighting cancer?
With chemotherapy, there are a lot of side effects: nausea, vomiting, hair loss. The drugs go everywhere in the body. With nanoballoons, we’ll be able to use a much smaller dose and dump all of the drug in the tumor.

Under a microscope, the nanoballoons are green. Why?
There’s chlorophyll in them. We take chlorophyll from algae, chemically alter it and attach it to a fat molecule that’s used to make the nanoballoons.

Why do you do that?
If something looks green, that means it’s absorbing red and blue light. This is what you want when you work on light-activated treatments, because red light penetrates tissue the deepest. If you hold a flashlight to your hand, your palm glows red because the red light can pass through your body. The lasers we shine on the nanoballoons use near-infrared light, which is similar to red light.

What’s next for the research?
We’re presently testing the nanoballoons in mice and getting very promising results. Once we get some further validation data in mouse models of cancer, the next big step is to bring this technology to a human clinical trial.