Lasers Use Nanobubbles to Blast Cancer Cells

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Physicians often resort to surgery to remove tumors. But sometimes, cancer cells are left behind, often because they are in sensitive areas like the head and neck as well as the brain, breast, and prostate, inhibiting more aggressive procedures. These leftovers mean tumors can return or metastasize.

Researchers at Rice University have developed a method for eliminating these dangerous cells. The treatment begins with tiny gold particles that have cancer-specific antibodies attached to their surface so they can be engulfed in high concentrations and cluster only in cancer cells.

When exposed to a short and broad laser pulse, these clusters heat and evaporate surrounding liquid. This produces a plasmonic nanobubble, which produces an “acoustic pop” that reveals the cancer cell and causes an explosion, destroying the cell from the inside out.

“This is a creative and novel approach that combines an understanding of the basic biophysics of heat transfer with the exquisite specificity and chemistry of the targeting antibodies,” said Rosemarie Hunziker, director of the program for tissue engineering at the National Institute of Biomedical Imaging and Bioengineering. “It could become a powerful tool in our arsenal to fight cancer.”

The particles can be injected before surgery so they travel to and cluster in cancer cells. After the tumor is surgically removed, the near-infrared laser pulse is applied. It can travel safely through a centimeter of tissue and only damages the remaining cancer cells, reducing the amount of unintended damage to healthy cells.

So far, the researchers have injected the gold particles into mice with cancer before surgery. While 80% of the mice in the operated group that did not receive the particle treatment died due to tumors that recurred within 10 days of the surgery, none of the mice that received the additional nanobubble treatment regrew tumors in the next 2 months.

Clinical trials on humans are expected in the next few years. The study, “Intraoperative diagnostics and elimination of residual microtumours with plasmonic nanobubbles,” was published by Nature Nanotechnology.

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