THE acid test in the battle against cancer is to find a way to get the drugs to fight tumours without hurting healthy cells.
A researcher at the Singapore-MIT Alliance for Research and Technology (Smart) may have found a way to do just that – by recognising the fact that cancer cells are more acidic than healthy ones. The invention – ultra-small particles which carry the drug and whose outer layer dissolves in an acidic environment – could make treatment cheaper and eliminate side-effects such as organ failure.
Dr Paula Hammond heads the project at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the US. Cancer drugs are usually hidden in ultra-small particles to prevent them from destroying healthy cells. Traditionally, researchers design these particles with molecular “hooks” to latch on to cancer cells. The challenge has been to create hooks that latch on to only cancer cells and not healthy ones.
The new method takes advantage of cancer cells’ acidity. The particles designed by Dr Hammond and her team have an outer layer that dissolves in acidic environments. Upon contact with the tumour, the layer dissolves and releases the drug. Dr Hammond said the particles can be used to carry any cancer drug and could make treatment cheaper. “Usually, we have to design a specific particle for each kind of cancer cell,” she said. “This universal particle could help lower prices.”
Other researchers have tried to create such universal particles but Dr Hammond’s project is the first to be successfully tested on living animals. Human clinical trials could start in five to 10 years. The team is looking to expand the particles’ use and is in talks to collaborate with the Smart centre here to test the technology on infectious diseases. The project has been funded so far by the US National Institutes of Health. Dr Hammond said she would seek funding from Singapore sources if the project is expanded here.
Cancer is the No. 1 killer in Singapore, responsible for about one in three deaths each year.