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Light-controlled nanomaterials could hunt out and destroy cancer cells

Lung cancer is one of the diseases that could benefit from new diagnostic methods. Image credit: Scott Wilkinson, Adam Marcus, National Cancer Institute
Lung cancer is one of the diseases that could benefit from new diagnostic methods. Image credit: Scott Wilkinson, Adam Marcus, National Cancer Institute

Carbon nanomaterials could carry out cancer diagnosis and therapy at the same time – and the results could be particularly effective for aggressive forms of cancer, say researchers who are developing so-called theranostic approaches.

It’s one of a number of research projects which are developing prototypes of novel diagnostic methods by forging partnerships between academia and industry and using staff secondments to companies or other countries to improve their research.

At the National Institute of Applied Sciences of Lyon (INSA Lyon), France, Dr Vladimir Lysenko’s team is investigating four types of carbon nanomaterials to understand which has the most promise to be used as a theranostic tool.

The eventual aim is for light- and sound-sensitive nanomaterials to be delivered to cancer cells in patients, which would then be activated by a light source, through ultrasound, or both. Gentle activation would allow cells labelled with the nanomaterials to be imaged so medical professionals can see what they’re dealing with, whereas strong activation would destroy the cancer cells hosting the nanoparticles.

There are two ways in which the nanomaterials could reach cancer cells once they’ve been introduced into the human body. One is by tweaking the nanomaterials so that they recognise cancer cells specifically, and the other is to harness the fact that cancer cells grow in a fast and uncontrolled way, and would therefore naturally pick up a higher concentration of these materials than healthy cells. This method would mean that fast-growing, aggressive cancers would be particularly susceptible to such an approach.

The job of Dr Lysenko’s team is to investigate which nanomaterials would work best. They are researching four different types: carbon fluroxide nanoparticles, nanodiamonds, carbon nanotubes and graphene.

‘They are all based on carbon, which means that the only difference is the form and the surface chemical binding of the carbon (atoms),’ said Dr Lysenko. ‘We will see how the sizes and the shapes of the nanomaterials will impact, for example, their biocompatibility.’

Links with industry

While much of what Dr Lysenko and his team are doing is fundamental science, the project’s links with industry – a nanodiamond manufacturer in Israel and an optical imaging company in Ukraine – are allowing them to analyse how their work can eventually be used in the biomedical market.

The project, called CARTHER, has received funding under the Marie Sklodowska-Curie RISE programme, which funds staff exchanges between different sectors or countries.

‘There is direct feedback from the industrial partners. This really helps both industry and institutions to understand what is really necessary.’

Prof. Tibor Hianik, Comenius University, Slovakia

Dr Lysenko says this type of collaboration has two main advantages, it gives his team access to materials and technologies from industry which wouldn’t be available otherwise, and it gives companies fundamental science knowledge that they could take forward to commercialise.

For Dr Cristina Ress from Italian company Optoi Microelectronics, which leads a project funded under the same programme, there is a third advantage to exchanges with institutions in other parts of the world, which is that they provide a way of validating their work across diverse populations.

She coordinates the miRNA-DisEASY project, which is investigating the potential of microRNA – tiny molecules that control whether a gene is turned on or off – to act as indicators of disease.

By partnering with a university in Brazil, Dr Ress says they can ensure that their results stand up across different populations. ‘Sometimes genetic variation can affect microRNA expression depending on if you are a woman or a man, they may change depending on the age of a person, and on different ethnic groups,’ she said. ‘The University of Santa Catarina has samples from Latin America and we want to compare the expression of microRNA in different samples from Europe and South America.’

The end result of the project, which finishes in 2019, will be a prototype light-based device that can detect specific microRNAs in humans. Because these are present in bodily fluids such as blood, urine and saliva, and their character changes in the presence of disease, Dr Ress says that such a test would be a quick and easy way of diagnosing diseases such as cancer in a clinic rather than sending samples to a lab.

MicroRNAs can even be used to identify whether someone’s cancer will respond to a particular treatment, meaning doctors can target therapies accordingly. The project is focusing specifically on lung cancer, but Dr Ress believes it has potential for other diseases, and could one day be used in pharmacies for people to detect conditions such as liver damage from overuse of drugs.

Milk enzymes

New biological detection techniques are not just confined to human subjects, however. In Slovakia, Hungary and Ireland, researchers are working out how to design a test to detect particular enzymes in milk.

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The FORMILK project, led by Professor Tibor Hianik from Comenius University in Bratislava, Slovakia, is developing sensors to identify two milk enzymes – plasmin and lactase. Knowing how much plasmin is in a sample of milk is an important quality control device for farmers, as an abundance of the enzyme is good for cheesemaking, but could make pasteurised milk taste bitter. And lactase is used in the production of lactose-free products.

‘Usually farmers don’t have specialist analytical techniques for checking the products,’ says Prof. Hianik. ‘Usually they send it to a centralised institute, but this has some delay. This is why it is necessary to have some site control and flexible instruments, which can give you very immediate results of the quality of the milk.’

By the end of the project in 2019, he hopes to have a prototype device that is connected to a sensor and can monitor these enzymes in milk, along with guidelines of how best to control lactose levels. The idea is then for one of the industrial partners to take the device forward to market.

He says the staff secondments that take place as part of the project are vital for transferring knowledge between different project partners, as are regular meetings. ‘All the partners collaborate in a workshop and there is direct feedback from the industrial partners. This really helps both industry and institutions to understand what is really necessary.’

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