Nanoparticles point to cancerous tumors in MRIs

A nanoparticle developed by researchers at Imperial College London could boost the effectiveness of MRI scanning by zeroing in on receptors found in cancerous cells.--Courtesy of Mikhail Kondrashov/Fotolia

Researchers are hoping to get into the clinic in the next three to 5 years with a self-assembling nanoparticle that targets tumors. The idea behind the technology is to make cancer cells more identifiable when using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) screening.

Scientists recently published early results in cancer cells and mice in the German Chemical Society journal Angewandte Chemie. The study compared the effects of the self-assembling nanoparticle in MRI scanning to common imaging agents. It found that the nanoparticle produced a more powerful signal and created a clearer MRI image of the tumor.

The iron oxide nanoparticles are designed to conjugate upon sensing the matrix metalloproteinase enzymes associated with cancer cells. This interaction strips off the nanoparticles' protein coating, which causes them to self-assemble into a much larger particle that is more visible in an MRI scan.

"By improving the sensitivity of an MRI examination, our aim is to help doctors spot something that might be cancerous much more quickly. This would enable patients to receive effective treatment sooner, which would hopefully improve survival rates from cancer," lead author professor Nicholas Long from the Department of Chemistry at Imperial College London said in a statement.

He added, "We are aware that some doctors feel that even though MRI scanners are effective at spotting large tumors, they are perhaps not as good at detecting smaller tumors in the early stages."

Before testing the nontoxic nanoparticle in mice, the scientists examined it in a petri dish to ensure it wouldn't grow so large that it caused harm. It grew to between 100 to 800 nanometers--still small enough not to do any damage, according to the researchers.

Prior to starting human trials, the scientists plan to make the nanoparticle even smaller. They need to ensure that it's not so small that the body simply secretes it out before imaging, but not so big that it could be harmful to the body.

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