Precision Medicine Targets Cancer Tumors More Safely

Technology is making medicine more precise than ever. That’s a big deal for patients who need a mixture of chemotherapy and radiation therapy — like people with advanced stages of head and neck cancer, for whom the chemo/radiation combination creates acute side effects that limit its use, especially in older patients. We’ve created a new chemo/radiotherapy formulation that sidesteps those side effects, by largely confining the cancer-killing action of the therapeutic chemo toxins to the tumor itself, without spreading them into the bloodstream and body.

Our approach uses nanoparticles to maximize the efficacy of the chemo drugs in the tumor and minimize the effects on normal tissue. The chemotherapy drugs are encased in a capsule together with “radio luminescent” nanoparticles (radio luminescence is the phenomenon in which light is produced by radiation bombardment). This custom-designed, radiation-degradable, polymer capsule is then injected directly into the patient’s tumor with a syringe.

Under X-ray radiation, the nanoparticles produce UV-A light that both enhances the cancer-killing effects of the radiation treatment and unleashes the chemo drugs from the capsule into the tumor. The drug stays active within the tumor for at least a month, with minimal leakage outside the malignancy that might damage other cells and produce unwanted side effects.

Precision medicine solutions like our nanoparticle formulation can play an important role in maintaining quality of life during treatment of head and neck cancers. Blanket chemo/radiotherapy combination treatments can cause such problems as tooth decay and loss; patients can experience pain or difficulty swallowing, changes to their voice and loss of appetite; and there can be skin irritations, bone pain, nausea, fatigue, and sore throat.

Our radiation-controlled drug-release technology would enable patients with advanced solid tumors to achieve the benefits of the chemo/radio combination treatment with fewer complications. This is a therapeutic option that has not been available to these patients, who typically are excluded from conventional chemotherapy/radiotherapy treatment.

Therapies like this can change the way cancer care is delivered. Dramatic improvements in treatment outcomes can be achieved with conventional drugs if we can deliver them more precisely to the tumor. Other advances — including robotics-driven precision injection of drugs in difficult-to-reach locations, and “theranostics,” the use of nanoparticles to synchronize therapy and diagnostics by monitoring and validating drug action through real-time images — will help further realize the potential of precision, localized drug therapy.

Our formulation has been successful in cancer-cell culture experiments, in vivo testing, and mathematical simulations of patient data. We are conducting more testing, and working to understand the steps and timescales of how the radiation-controlled drug release formulations are processed and cleared from the body. Success would mean a lot to the approximately 550,000 head and neck cancer patients globally. In the U.S., some 3 percent of cancers are of this variety, with about 63,000 Americans developing the malignancies each year.

Precision medicine solutions such as our innovation for combined chemo and radiation therapy will play an increasing role in treating cancer and other diseases, through their ability to exactly target patient ailments for better outcomes, reduced side effects, and improved quality of life.

You-Yeon Won

Professor of Chemical Engineering

Davidson School of Chemical Engineering

Purdue College of Engineering



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