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In spite of all the research done in recent decades and the remarkable progress that has been made in the field of oncology, cancer remains the second leading cause of death in America, responsible for approximately 1 out of every 4 deaths. The American Cancer Society estimates that in 2014 alone, there will be 1,655,540 newly diagnosed cases of cancer and 585,720 deaths. These statistics by themselves make the issue of cancer an important social problem. It also makes the need for innovative cancer research very urgent indeed.

There are certainly more options available to cancer patients now than there have been in years past. Even so, traditional oncological treatment still revolves around radiation, chemotherapy or surgery or some combination of the three. All of these options can damage a patient's healthy tissues as well as the cancer cells, and all have particular disadvantages and unwanted side effects. The good news is that the emerging field of nanotechnology may be able to change all that. While this new technology has potential for application across a whole spectrum of fields, it has been of particular interest to medical researchers as a source for new and better cancer treatments – and maybe even a cure.

What is Nanotechnology and How Does it Apply to Cancer Treatment?

Nanotechonology simply refers to the research in and manipulation of nanoparticles for a particular use. Oftentimes, these “nanoparticles” are atoms, molecules or even fragments of molecules and there is a wide application for this technology in both science and industry. “Nanomedicine” refers to the use of this technology in the field of healthcare and even though it is still an emerging science, researchers are already developing techiniques that will help with cancer treatment. This is due largely to the United States National Cancer Institute or NCI. As early as 2004, the NCI launched an initiative called the Alliance for Nanotechnology in Cancer to help spur research at institutions across the country. It has clearly paid off, and a number of applications are available today that could only be dreamed about only a few decades ago.

These applications tend to fall into two general categories. The first category is the use of nanoparticles to act as vehicles for either medication or imaging agents. These medications or agents are “piggybacked” onto the nanoparticle, which transports them to the targeted cancer cell. This use of nanoparticles can make cancer treatment much more specific than is currently the case. The second category is the use of these particles in conjunction with sensors so that doctors can detect very early stages of cancer, when only a few cells are effected. This is an exciting tool in the fight to defeat cancer. That is because most oncologists agree that the earlier cancer is detected, the more treatment options a patient has and the more likely it is that those treatments will be effective.

The Benefits of Nanomedicine for Cancer Treatment

There are several benefits to nanotechonology over traditional cancer treatments. The benefits include the following.

•Nanomedicine can specifically target cancer cells and kill them effectively without the collateral damage to healthy tissues that is often a problem with traditional cancer treatments.

•The specificity which is the hallmark of nanomedicine can help reduce some of the more difficult side effects of cancer treatment, including chronic fatigue, a weakened or compromised immune system, hair loss and gastro-intestinal issues like nausea, vomiting and diarrhea. These side effects are – understandably – the reason for some of the biggest patient complaints. These complaints, however, could eventually become a thing of the past as nanotechnology develops.

•Nanocarriers for cancer medications can help prevent those medications from being metabolized (broken down) by the body too quickly, before they can reach the cancer cells that are being targeted. This can mean an increased absorption of the medication and a more effective therapy for the patient.

•Nanomedicine can give oncologists more control over the dosage, frequency and timing of medication administration. This helps make the medication more therapeutic and can lead to better patient outcomes.

Nanotechnology and the FDA

While many uses of nanotechonology in regards to cancer treatment are still in the developmental stage, definite progress is being made on this front. Two “nano drugs” are currently on the market under the names of Doxil and Abraxane. Doxil is an injectable drug used in chemotherapy to treat leukemia, Hodgkin's lymphoma and cancers of the breast, bladder, ovaries, thyroid, lungs and stomach. Abraxane is also injectable and this nanomedicine binds to albumin in the bloodstream and targets fast-dividing cancer cells and kills them. It is used to treat breast, lung and pancreatic cancers.

In addition to this, the FDA has approved many Investigational New Drug or IND applications that will allow an even broader range of clinical trials involving nanotechonology to take place. Currently, such IND's have been approved for solid tumor, lymphoma, central nervous system, breast and genito-urinary cancers.

Current Research in Nanotechonogy Application for Cancer Treatment

Below are some examples of ongoing research that is pitting nanotechonology against the disease process of cancer.

•Dr. Thomas Kipps at the University of California, San Diego is in the process of developing a nanoparticle which will deliver a molecule to help stimulate the immune system of a patient with cancer. This research is in Phase I of its clinical trials and is working currently with patients who have chronic lymphocitic leukemia (CLL).

•The Calando Pharmaceuticals Company is developing a nanoparticle which encapsulates and then shuts down a key enzyme in cancer cells to help kill them off. This particular research gives great hope to cancer patients who have developed immunity to traditional chemotherapy treatments.

•Researchers at MD Anderson are conducting studies in which pancreatic cancer patients are injected with specially designed lipsomes which kill off cancer cells. This study is still ongoing, but preclinical trials on mice showed that this technique helped to eliminate tumor cells while leaving healthy tissues intact.

In short, there is still a lot to be learned about the ways in which nanotechnology can be applied to the fight against cancer. In many ways, this technology is still in its infancy. However, many of these techonologies are becoming increasingly available to the patients who need them and they are giving hope to the millions of Americans – and their families and loved ones – who suffer from this disease.

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