Segmented “nanoworms” composed of magnetic iron oxide and coated with a polymer are able to find and attach to tumors. Scientists at UC San Diego, UC Santa Barbara and MIT have developed nanometer-sized “nanoworms” that can cruise through the bloodstream without significant interference from the body’s immune defense system and—like tiny anti-cancer missiles—home in on tumors. They are superparamagnetic and show up very well on MRIs and can circulate in the body for hours since they do not trigger the immune system. Researchers are developing chemical attachments that will help to reach specific targets in the body and adding drugs that would be released when targets are reached.
Using nanoworms, doctors should eventually be able to target and reveal the location of developing tumors that are too small to detect by conventional methods. Carrying payloads targeted to specific features on tumors, these microscopic vehicles could also one day provide the means to more effectively deliver toxic anti-cancer drugs to these tumors in high concentrations without negatively impacting other parts of the body.
“Most nanoparticles are recognized by the body’s protective mechanisms, which capture and remove them from the bloodstream within a few minutes,” said Michael Sailor, a professor of chemistry and biochemistry at UC San Diego who headed the research team. “The reason these worms work so well is due to a combination of their shape and to a polymer coating on their surfaces that allows the nanoworms to evade these natural elimination processes. As a result, our nanoworms can circulate in the body of a mouse for many hours.”
The scientists constructed their nanoworms from spherical iron oxide nanoparticles that join together, like segments of an earthworm, to produce tiny gummy worm-like structures about 30 nanometers long—or about 3 million times smaller than an earthworm. Their iron-oxide composition allows the nanoworms to show up brightly in diagnostic devices, specifically the MRI, or magnetic resonance imaging, machines that are used to find tumors.
“The iron oxide used in the nanoworms has a property of superparamagnetism, which makes them show up very brightly in MRI,” said Sailor. “The magnetism of the individual iron oxide segments, typically eight per nanoworm, combine to provide a much larger signal than can be observed if the segments are separated. This translates to a better ability to see smaller tumors, hopefully enabling physicians to make their diagnosis of cancer at earlier stages of development.”
The researchers are now working on developing ways to attach drugs to the nanoworms and chemically treating their exteriors with specific chemical “zip codes,” that will allow them to be delivered to specific tumors, organs and other sites in the body.
“We are now using nanoworms to construct the next generation of smart tumor-targeting nanodevices,” said Ruoslahti. We hope that these devices will improve the diagnostic imaging of cancer and allow pinpoint targeting of treatments into cancerous tumors.”