With over a million new cases of cancer a year and a mortality rate of approximately 600,000 a year, cancer is right up there with smoking and obesity as a huge health risk.
The traditional cancer treatments have a finite level of efficacy and they are known for their unpleasant side effects which can be sufficiently unpleasant for people to decide not to continue treatment.
Researchers across the globe have been looking at alternatives to chemotherapy and radiation in the hope of treating cancers better and also of lowering the unpleasantness of the side effects. In recent years we have seen developments in immunotherapy, vaccines, and anti-cancer viruses.
But there is a new area of investigation that has excited scientists because of its potential and the possibilities which flow from the idea.
Nanoparticles might be called a revolution
Using nanoparticles in the treatment of cancer is still in the research and development phases, but the theory works like this.
The goal is twofold; first of all to target and destroy tumors preferably without damage to healthy cells close by, and secondly to hunt for micro-tumors and destroy them before they have a chance to turn into something that is dangerous.
Nanoparticles are interesting in this question because they offer two distinct advantages. Firstly, they offer the potential to be incredibly precise and secondly they are much less invasive than the alternative methods available.
There are multiple approaches in nanotechnology and at this point, none of them are necessarily the way or the silver bullet. For example, one approach is to use one nanoparticle to deliver a chemotherapy dose and to couple it with another particle which will guide it directly to the site of the tumor.
Scientists in the UK and China have isolated a nanoparticle which can expose cancer cells to sufficient heat that it will stop their growth, and have been able to demonstrate these same particles not affecting the surrounding tissue.
At UCLA they are exploring using a dual particle approach where particle one removed the external cell membrane which is resistant to chemotherapy. Once the membrane has been eradicated a second particle then attacks the cell with a direct hit of chemotherapy destined to kill only the cancer cell.
A huge volume of research
One of the reasons for optimism in this field of nanotechnology is the vast amount of research taking place in universities and companies all over the world. The volume of work that is being carried out suggests that sooner rather than later someone is going to get to the point where there is the breakthrough, the one which makes all the difference.
Nanotechnology is sufficiently exciting scientists believe that within a decade or so, it will be possible to get to the point where we can eliminate cancer. It could be the same sort of game changer as the vaccine against Smallpox was in the last century.