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A Fantastic Voyage for Chemotherapy Drugs

By Mark McNeil

In the 1966 sci-fi movie Fantastic Voyage, a submarine containing physicians is miniaturized and injected into the bloodstream of a comatose patient.

The ship then goes on a whirlwind journey to find and break up a blood clot in the man’s brain to save his life.

Nearly 50 years later, shrunken doctors riding in microscopic submarines remain the stuff of science fiction. But a new research study involving McMaster University has come up with a nifty way to deliver life-saving drugs on fantastic voyages through the bloodstreams of cancer patients.

Led by Jonathan Lovell, an assistant professor at the University at Buffalo and a former McMaster student, the project is developing nano-balloons to carry chemotherapy drugs. The journal Nature Communications this month described it as a technology that could improve cancer treatment and reduce side effects from chemo drugs.

Nano-balloons are fantastically small, balloon-like conveyance devices, about 100 nanometres in diameter. A nanometre is one billionth the size of a metre.

They are injected into the patient and travel through the bloodstream, to be unleashed at the tumour site when the energy from a red laser beam causes them to break up and release the drugs.

Red light has the ability to penetrate deeply into human tissues, so it can be used externally.

Lovell and the other researchers were able to come up with a nano-balloon that would come apart when subjected to a red laser, pointed at the target area.

He says the research he began while at McMaster, which now involves the University of Waterloo as well as McMaster and the University at Buffalo, has been shown to work in a lab setting and has had great results killing tumours on mice.

The next step is to develop ways to test the technology on humans.

“I’m not sure how will it play out,” says Lovell. “In theory you could use a lower drug dose and reduce the toxic side effects or you could use a higher drug dose and really get a powerful response in the tumour.”

McMaster biochemistry professor Joaquin Ortega and student Bilal Ahsan used an electronic microscope to photograph how the nano-balloons were breached by the laser. The pictures were invaluable to show how the process takes place, said Lovell.

Read the Hamilton Spectator article.