How nanoparticles could improve traditional chemotherapy

Chemotherapy is a form of treating cancer using cancer cell killing drugs. It is usually given through injection but there are many alternative possibilities like swallowing pills. The way chemotherapy works is through destroying rapidly growing and dividing cells. Cancer cells belong to those targeted due to their high growing and dividing characteristics. The main controversy about this method of utilizing chemotherapy is that the drug is not only targeting cancer cells but rather also other healthy cells throughout the whole body. Healthy, fast growing cells that are frequently affected by chemotherapy are for example hair and skin cells. The negative impact of the reduction of hair or skin cells could then cause hair loss, bruising and bleeding. To minimize these negative consequences, chemotherapy is usually given in cycles, enabling the healthy cells some time to recover.

A possible way of improving this old-fashioned approach of chemotherapy could be through utilizing nanoparticles. Nanoparticles are engineered particles, usually between 1 and 100 nanometers in size. The aim of current research is to develop a manner of using nanoparticles in order to convey the drug solely into the cancer cells without it altering any of our precious healthy cells. This would eliminate most of the plenty side effects faced by chemotherapy patients.

The most demanding aspect of this idea is how to safely direct the medicine into the cancer cells. Luckily, cancer cells have multiple properties, that differ from healthy cells. One of those attributes of cancer cells is that they grow in uncontrolled magnitude. To keep up this growth, they apply molecules called surface receptors. These surface receptors recognize specific nutrients outside the cell and pull them inside to use as fuel for their own growth. Now it is possible to direct drug delivery vehicles (DDV), that are made out of nanoparticles carrying cancer killing drugs, into cancer cells and avoid healthy cells due to the differences between both kind of cells. DDVs are able to get into cancer cells more easily than they can get into normal cells caused by cancer cells being more permeable due to their different properties than healthy cells. Once there, it is possible to release the medicine. If the DDVs havent released any of its stored drugs before arriving at its destination, all the medicine is now inside the cancer cells without affecting any of the healthy cells.

Effective DDVs need to fulfill a couple of requirements before they can be utilized in humans. One of those essentials is that the material, that the DDVs are made from cannot possibly be harmful to the receiving patient. Another is, that they must be small enough to pass through the surface receptors of the cancer cells. And additionally, they need to be able to carry the cancer drug inside themselves without leaking any on its path to the cancer cells and then smoothly release the medicine into the tumor. Lastly, it would be useful for the person, operating the DDVs, if they were trackable, in order to identify the success of the treatment.

The medicine is absorbed by the DDVs because they are similar to small sponges. This however also causes the problem of leakage. In order to prevent this, gatekeeper molecules are used, that are connected to the surface of the nanoparticles (DDVs) to block the openings of the sponge like structure. Those gatekeeper molecules can be designed in a fashion that enables them to change shape. This opens the possibility for them to open inside the tumor respectively the cancer cells. A handy way of controlling this change of shape would be for example through heating them. For this heating procedure an inductive heating machine is applied. This machine works through a magnetic field that is capable of heating metals. In order to make use of this machine, the nanoparticles are engineered to have a tiny piece of metal inside them. This piece of metal is then heated from the outside of the human body with the machine focusing on the tumor area. The challenging aspect of this part of the progress is, that while heating the tumor area is also killing cancer cells, healthy cells around the tumor scope are likely to get burned as well, when it is heated too much. To make the DDVs visible, they are made fluorescent. This means that they will look green, when we look at them using a special kind of light under a microscope.

In conclusion, this new method of cancer treatment demonstrates lots of potential and could futurize the cancer treating industry. However, it hasn’t yet been tested on humans and therefore it will be a while until this method can be adapted into medicine. In the meanwhile, there are many more areas of improvement for the DDVs including their leakiness, accuracy and some fine tuning in the heating process.


Courtney, T. R. (2016, August 17). Can We Use Nanotechnology to Treat Cancer? Retrieved January 15, 2018, from Front Young Minds:

Martin, L. J. (2017, September 10). Chemotherapy: How It Works and How You’ll Feel. Retrieved January 15, 2018, from WebMD:

Pavlovic, M. (2015). Bioengineering A Conceptual Approach. Switzerland: Springer International Publishing Switzerland.


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