Scientifically engineered nanoparticles to improve treatment for cancer

Associate Professor Ivan Kempson uses a confocal microscope to image structures and features inside individual cells. Photo by David Solm. HEALTH
Associate Professor Ivan Kempson uses a confocal microscope to image structures and features inside individual cells. Photo by David Solm.

> Helping reduce chemotherapy-induced nausea Facility

Radiotherapy breaks the DNA strands inside cancer cell nuclei (the blue dots). The breaks in the DNA strand are shown in green / aqua. UniSA researchers are now able to count the number of DNA breaks compared to the number of nanoparticles inside each cell to formulate the most effective treatment.Radiotherapy breaks the DNA strands inside cancer cell nuclei (the blue dots). The breaks in the DNA strand are shown in green / aqua. UniSA researchers are now able to count the number of DNA breaks compared to the number of nanoparticles inside each cell to formulate the most effective treatment.

UniSA researchers have found a way to get scientifically engineered microscopic molecules to attach to cancer tumours to increase the effectiveness of radiotherapy – a major milestone it is hoped will lead to increased survival rates with fewer side effects from treatment.

Researchers believe they can use nanoparticles, which are 5000 times thinner than a human hair, to enable higher radiation doses to be delivered directly into cancer tumour tissue whilst sparing surrounding healthy tissues.

The world first involves scientifically engineered nanoparticles attaching to a tumour. The nanoparticles can enhance the physical and biological effects of radiotherapy by making the tumour more sensitive to x-rays. Just as light is absorbed at a greater rate in opaque materials, so too are larger numbers of x-rays absorbed in tumour tissues via nanoparticles.

The development is a result of the breakthrough ability to correlate, quantify and model the effects of nanoparticles in radiotherapy to predict and improve outcomes for patients with cancer.

Researchers from UniSA’s Future Industries Institute are testing the nanoparticles in pre-clinical settings, which should be ready for human trials in the next two years. The concept has already captured commercial interest. A preclinical study is being funded jointly by the South Australian Government and a medical device company. UniSA Ventures, UniSA’s commercialisation arm, is also involved in driving the technology forward.

The research has been carried out in close collaboration with the Royal Adelaide Hospital.

UniSA Professor in Medical Radiation Eva Bezak says the breakthrough discovery is expected to result in increased localised radiation damage in the tumour with far fewer side effects to surrounding healthy tissues.

“The experimental data is providing unique insight into mechanisms and variables that are important to radiobiological models predicting the effects of radiotherapy,” Prof Bezak says.

“With this information we can begin to identify and design optimal radiation delivery plans to maximise therapeutic benefits.”

Associate Professor Ivan Kempson, the biophysicist leading the experimental research, says the more efficient treatment could mean less time in treatment and away from home for patients, as well as lower costs, and, most importantly, more people surviving cancer, disease-free.

“Radiotherapy treatment is constrained by the radiation tolerance of healthy tissues and the side effects caused,” Asc Prof Kempson says.

“As we get older or suffer from poorer health we are less tolerant of the side effects and therefore are unable to receive as aggressive treatments as younger, fitter people.

“With this new concept, higher radiation doses can be delivered into the tumour tissue and spare healthy tissues from the collateral damage.

“I believe this will amplify the therapeutic effect of radiotherapy, benefiting many patients but will be especially so for the frail and elderly.”

In an exciting and unexpected development from the research, he believes some of the same concepts could translate to improvements in chemotherapy for treating metastatic cancer, which is cancer that has spread from the primary site of origin.

Helping reduce chemotherapy-induced nausea

UniSA researchers have received a grant from Cancer Council SA with the ambition of improving the treatment of nausea for patients receiving chemotherapy.

Professor Ian OlverThe Sansom Institute for Health Research director Professor Ian Olver and Senior Research Fellow Dr Hayley Whitford have been awarded a $75,000 Beat Cancer Project grant.

Prof Olver says just over 50 per cent of patients diagnosed with cancer receive chemotherapy at some point, with up to seven in 10 experiencing nausea as a side effect.

“Nausea is one of the top 10 most disturbing side effects reported because it does not respond as well to medication which controls vomiting,” Prof Olver says.

Prof Olver and Dr Whitford will develop an app through which patients can communicate nausea symptoms to oncology staff in real-time.

“We have already done research that nausea is a cluster of symptoms so we want to find out for each patient what those symptoms are so we can better target the treatment,” he says.

“If successful, we will be able to better treat the nausea experienced by patients when they have drug therapy and stop it becoming a persistent symptom triggered by sights and smells associated with receiving chemotherapy.”

The aim is to improve the quality of life of patients with cancer.

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