By GENE HOWINGTON
Technology is oft compared to a two-edged blade. Usually just before some horrific cautionary tale about “science run amok”. No new technology in recent memory has sparked quite as much speculative fear as nanotechnology. From real science fact of hypothetical “gray goo” – a term created to his own regret by nanotechnology pioneer Eric Drexler in his book “Engines of Creation” to describe self-replicating von Neumann machines – to the Mycora, a swarm of science fiction nanites that consumes and “rewrites” the entire inner solar system, forcing a struggling remnant of humanity to live underground on the cold moons of Jupiter in Wil McCarthy’s excellent novel “Bloom“, there are plenty of rational reasons to fear nanotechnology. The ability to craft at the molecular level is as close to directly programming the nature of reality as we as a species can imagine without using some pretty intense physics. It is a technology with a dark side that could potentially, unlike even the horrors of nuclear and chemical weapons, destroy the Earth in toto leaving not a stone behind as evidence of our Big Blue Marble.
But what of side of light? What beauty can be worth such risk? How about a possible way to live with if not cure cancer? A way to make it easier to treat if nothing else?
To quote that (in)famous animated scientist Professor Hubert Farnsworth, “Good news, everybody!”
The BBC is reporting an interesting breakthrough in the treatment of cancer using nanotechnology. In a paper originally published in the journal Nature Materials, researchers at the Georgia Institute of Technology say they have designed nanofibres thinner than a human hair which cancers will “choose” to travel down. Working with a particularly difficult-to-treat brain cancers (glioblastomas) known to have a tendency to spread inside the brain by traveling down nerves and blood vessels, the nanofibre technology mimics these natural channels cancerous cells use to move. Researcher Professor Ravi Bellamkonda compared the process to mass transit: “The cancer cells normally latch on to these natural structures and ride them like a monorail to other parts of the brain. By providing an attractive alternative fibre, we can efficiently move the tumours along a different path to a destination that we choose.”
In addition to the glioblastomas, this approach worked on a variety of different types of cancer in a Petri dish and animal studies showed that tumors could be drawn out of the brain and into an implanted toxic gel, killing the uncontrolled growth. As Bellamkonda summarizes to the BBC,”It’s a way of bringing the tumour to the drug, not the drug to the tumour.” The results are startling in actual scale as they are in their promise to save lives previously without hope. The size of the tumor was 93% smaller in rats fitted with “the cancer monorail” than in untreated rats. According to Bellakonda this works because “[y]ou can move a tumour along a path you specify and then kill it, it’s not creating extra tumor and the primary tumor actually shrinks.” He also suggested that controlling the growth of a tumor might be able to make cancer something people live with like other chronic conditions if it cannot be cured. Another possible application is making cancer surgery easier. Normally in surgical treatment, a tumor and the surrounding tissue are removed, but this is especially a challenge in the brain where removing any unnecessary tissue could have severe consequences. The idea is that doctors might be able to move a tumor, essentially tricking it to migrate, to an area more easily operated on or one with less associated risks.
It is important to note that this cutting-edge research is at a very early stages and there need to be far more animal studies conducted before the technique is considered for human trials. As Dr. Emma Smith, senior science information officer at Cancer Research UK, said: “[I]t’s still in its infancy and so far has only been tested in rats, so there is a long way to go before we know if it will be safe and effective as a cancer treatment.”
Sometimes discovery can be beautiful, even in promise.
Source: BBC, Wikipedia (various reference), Amazon