Study aims to reduce chemotherapy side effects

We know the devastating affects of chemotherapy: the rapid hair loss, fatigue and inability to eat anything. The list can go on, making some people believe that the treatment may be far worse than cancer itself.

What if all the negative chemo side effects could be stopped?

Professor David Cramb, the director of the nanoscience program at the University of Calgary, is part of a study team that is working on improving the uses of nanotechnology for drug delivery.

Which Cramb and many other scientists believe has the potential to limit the side effects of chemotherapy.

“You can have drugs contained inside a nanoparticle so that you can protect the healthy parts of the body from these drugs,” Cramb said. “Basically we can have them delivered specifically to the tumours and limit the side effects of chemotherapy.”

What is nanotechnology?

Nanotechnology is the science of shaping and handling matter at a supramolecular level. The size of this technology may range from one to 100 nanometers, which is more than two billion times smaller than a penny. The drug delivery agent is known as a nanoparticle. With an object of such small size, scientists are able to direct this technology with precision within the human body.

The U of C Study

Using nanotechnology for drug delivery isn’t new, it has been around for more than 25 years, but it has began picking up momentum over the last decade.

Cramb and his team believe they have discovered a way of perfecting the science, and their seven-year study has just been submitted for publication review.

The study looks at the physical nature of why particles in the blood stream would migrate to a tumour.

Cramb explains that when a tumour hits a certain size, it has to build more blood vessels around itself. These blood vessels are like any others that would be developing in any embryonic organism. The walls of the blood vessels aren’t completely sealed; they have little holes or “windows” that small particles can get through.

For years, nanoscientists have been unable to figure out the perfect shape, size and charge of a nanoparticle, to allow it to get through these windows. However, Cramb and his team’s study suggest they have found a method to develop the right nanoparticles.

“We have made some discoveries that people probably haven’t thought about before,” Cramb said, “The kind of data and understanding we have can be applied generally to anybody who is trying to make new nanoparticles for drug delivery.”David Cramb studying the behavior of nanoparticles through the confocal florescent microscope.
Photo by: Michael Chan

There are a number of nanotechnology products in the clinical market for treating cancer within the United States. However in Canada, clinical studies are only taking place in British Columbia.

Warren Chan, an associate professor at the University of Toronto in the Institute of Biomaterials and Biomedical Engineering, helped create the materials that aided Cramb’s study. He believes there will be a large movement of towards nanotechnology medicine in Canada.

“Nanotechnology can have a huge potential to impact medicine,” Chan said. “Within the next few years I think there should be a number of new products entering clinical trials from Canada.”

Cancer survivor David Luong hopes Chan and Cramb are right about this. Luong needed chemotherapy at age 11, when he was diagnosed with a rare form of liver cancer.

The chemotherapy took serious and long-term effects on his body, leaving him unable to eat throughout treatment which drastically affected his health.

The side effects of chemotherapy still exist in his life. He is unable to do anything that causes stress to his heart, and continues to visit the hospital every year.

“If I was treated with nanotech instead of chemo,” says Luong, “I think I would not have to visit the hospital annually anymore.”

mchan@cjournal.ca