Jonathan F. Lovell, PhD and Kevin A. Carter

Nanoballoons have an “immense potential” for improving cancer treatment, says Jonathan F. Lovell, PhD (right), who mentors student and study co-author Kevin Carter.


 April 4, 2014

Using tiny modified liposomes, University at Buffalo researchers are developing a chemotherapy delivery method that could improve cancer treatment, reduce its side effects and boost knowledge about the disease.

“Why nanoballoons open in response to an otherwise harmless red laser is still a bit of a mystery to us, but we have definitely unearthed a new and unique phenomenon.”
Successful in studies with mice, human trials using these nanoballoons could start within five years, says Jonathan Lovell, PhD, assistant professor of biomedical engineering.

“The potential for improving how we treat cancer is immense.”

A study of the innovative drug delivery system, “Porphyrin–Phospholipid Liposomes Permeabilized by Near-Infrared Light,” has been published in Nature Communications. Lovell is corresponding author.

More Efficient than Conventional Chemo Delivery

Nanoballoons work by encapsulating chemotherapy drugs and — upon being popped open by a laser — delivering concentrated doses of the medicine to cancer cells.

Chemotherapeutic drugs excel at fighting cancer, but they often interact with blood, bone marrow and other healthy bodily systems. This dilutes the drugs and causes unwanted side effects.

Like conventional chemotherapy, nanoballoons would be delivered to patients intravenously. However, nanoballoons are a more efficient delivery method because they target cancer cells, diminishing the drugs’ interaction with healthy bodily systems.

Roughly 1,000 times thinner than human hair, the nanoballoons consist of porphyrin, an organic compound, and phospholipid, a fat similar to vegetable oil.

‘Unique’ Method Gives Snapshot of Tumor Environment

In experiments with mice, which have successfully destroyed tumors, Lovell hit the drug-filled nanoballoon with a red laser at the target site in the body. The laser triggered the nanoballoons to pop open and release the drugs.

“Why nanoballoons open in response to an otherwise harmless red laser is still a bit of a mystery to us, but we have definitely unearthed a new and unique phenomenon,” says Lovell.

As soon as the laser is turned off, the nanoballoons close, taking in proteins and molecules that might induce cancer growth.

Other major advantage is that the nanotechnology can provide a “chemical snapshot” of the tumor’s environment, which otherwise is difficult to assess, Lovell adds.

After treatment, the nanoballoons can then be retrieved by drawing blood or taking a biopsy.

“The nanoballoon is like a submarine. The drug is the cargo,” explains Lovell.

“We use a laser to open the submarine door, which releases the drug. We close the door by turning the laser off. We then retrieve the submarine as it circulates through the bloodstream.”

The researchers will continue fundamental studies to better understand why the treatment works in mice. They also aim to optimize the process.

Funded by the National Institutes of Health

Lovell’s work is supported by the National Institutes of Health (NIH), including a recent grant from the National Institute of Biomedical Imaging and Bioengineering. In addition, Lovell received one of 15 NIH Early Independence Awards granted nationally in 2013 for high-risk, high-reward research.

UB co-authors on the multidiciplinary study — from the Department of Biomedical Engineering and the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences — include:

  • students Kevin A. Carter (first author), Shuai Shao, Dandan Luo, Wentao Song and Haoyuan Huang
  • research technician Jumin Geng
  • engineering faculty members

Other collaborators are from the University at Albany; Roswell Park Cancer Institute in Buffalo; and the University of Waterloo and McMaster University, both in Ontario, Canada.

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