Can nanotechnology be used to help combat cancer? Sure, in a lot of different ways. Cancer is a very complicated disease. It is not one thing and therefore it is hard to figure out and then to treat. Cancer is a disease where your own cells go haywire, they grow and don’t stop. So they are different than normal cells but still they are in a lot of ways the same.
Treating cancer is a problem, because you can’t use things that are really toxic, otherwise they will kill those normal cells. The ways to treat cancer are to use things that can be targeted. Smart things, things like carbon nanotubes.
Carbon nanotubes are made of carbon, they are really thin, only a few nanometers across and thousands could fit into a cell. But how to ‘target’ carbon nanotubes to cancer cells? Prof. Hongjie Dai at Stanford University came up with a pretty clever idea. He coats the carbon nanotubes with folic acid, that is vitamin B. It turns out that cancer cells have a lot of folic acid receptors, proteins on the outside of a cell that bind folic acid. So the cancer cells bind folic acid coated carbon nanotubes and then the carbon nanotubes get inside the cancer cell.
Once inside Dai uses an infrared laser to heat up the carbon nanotubes. One property of carbon nanotubes is that they absorb infrared light and heat up. So by shining a laser, the cancer cells with the carbon nanotubes can be selectively heated up, while the normal cells don’t heat up at all. It doesn’t take much heat to kill a cell, only a few degrees and then the cell begins to die.
Right now this is still just an experiment that Dai and colleagues are doing in the lab and it will be a few years until they can test this in patients, but there is reason to be hopeful that nanotechnology will help cure cancer.
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Image Source: Journal of Nanoscience and Nanotechnology