Nanotubes jarred by lasers could wipe out stubborn breast cancer cells

First, inject breast cancer tumors with microscopic, multi-walled carbon nanotubes. Your specific target: the breast cancer stem cells inside that spawn the tumors in the first place.

Then, train a medical laser on the region for about 30 seconds, giving the nanotubes enough time to vibrate and generate heat by exposing them to near-infrared radiation. A region inside the tumor becomes extremely hot. In the end, the hope is that you essentially burn out the bulk of the tumor, plus the cancer stem cells that make tumors grow and return.

Researchers at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center in Winston-Salem, NC, tested the provocative process successfully in mice models, using tumors injected with breast cancer stem cells. Details of their findings are published online in the journal Biomaterials, outlining the promise of what are known as heat-based cancer treatments.

The researchers are using a technique that isn't new. As they explain in their institution's promotional materials, scientists tried the same technique on kidney cancer in 2009 with some promise. And startups and researchers alike have pursued the idea in other ways, such as using nanoparticles and x-rays to trigger the flash of heat that kills a tumor. But let's not kid ourselves. The broad idea hasn't yet produced a commercially viable treatment to speak of. And even in the case of the breast cancer/nanotube trial we're telling you about, lead researcher Suzy Torti warns that scientists expect as many as 10 additional years of research before they can determine if the process definitively works.

Part of the challenge, Torti explains in the research announcement, is that breast cancer stem cells fight hard to resist both drugs and radiotherapy. In other words, they're a colossal challenge. And if heat-based therapy works, then that's all the better. But it will take time to see if flashing a laser at microscopic nanotubes generates enough heat to truly eliminate the tumor and every trace of stem cells that might form new ones. Still, at least now there's hope.

"Heat based cancer treatments represent a promising approach," Torti says.

- here's the release