BUFFALO, N.Y. – Chemotherapeutic drugs excel at fighting
cancer, but they’re not so efficient at getting where they
need to go.
They often interact with blood, bone marrow and other healthy
bodily systems. This dilutes the drugs and causes unwanted side
Now, researchers are developing a better delivery method by
encapsulating the drugs in nanoballoons – which are tiny
modified liposomes that, upon being struck by a red laser, pop open
and deliver concentrated doses of medicine.
Described April 3 in the journal Nature Communications, the
innovation could improve cancer treatment, reduce its side effects
and boost research about the disease, which annually kills millions
of people worldwide.
The paper, “Porphyrin-phospholipid (PoP) liposomes
permeabilized by near-infrared light,” is available
“Why PoP-liposomes, or nanoballoons, open in response to
an otherwise harmless red laser is still a bit of a mystery to us,
but we have definitely unearthed a new and unique
phenomenon,” said corresponding author Jonathan Lovell, PhD,
UB assistant professor of biomedical engineering. “Its
potential for improving how we treat cancer is immense.”
Additional authors include students and a research technician at
UB, as well as collaborators from the University at Albany; Roswell
Park Cancer Institute in Buffalo; and the University of Waterloo
and McMaster University, both in Ontario, Canada.
Roughly 1,000 times thinner than human hair, nanoballoons
consist of porphyrin, an organic compound, and phospholipid, a fat
similar to vegetable oil. Like conventional chemotherapy, they
would be delivered to patients intravenously.
But because the nanoballoons encapsulate the anti-cancer drugs,
they diminish the drugs’ interaction with healthy bodily
In laboratory experiments performed with mice, Lovell hits the
nanoballoon with a red laser at the target site in the body. The
laser triggers the nanoballoons to pop open and release the drugs.
As soon as the laser is turned off, the nanoballoons close, taking
in proteins and molecules that might induce cancer growth. Doctors
could then be able to retrieve the nanoballoons by drawing blood or
taking a biopsy.
Thus, the nanotechnology could provide a “chemical
snapshot” of the tumor’s environment, which otherwise
is very difficult to assess.
“Think of it this way,” Lovell said. “The
nanoballoon is a submarine. The drug is the cargo. We use a laser
to open the submarine door which releases the drug. We close the
door by turning the laser off. We then retrieve the submarine as it
circulates through the bloodstream.”
Lovell will continue fundamental studies to better understand
why the treatment works so well in destroying tumors in mice, and
to optimize the process. Human trials could start within five
years, he said.
The work is supported by the National Institutes of Health,
which last year awarded Lovell grants from the National Institute
of Biomedical Imaging and Bioengineering, as well as its Early
Independence Award program, which funds high-risk, high-reward