Cancer is the primary cause of death worldwide and there is no one antidote. For decades, scientists have been trying to answer the elephant in the room: what is the magic recipe to cure cancer?
The closest humanity has come to treating the condition is through the use of ‘nanoparticles’ – these materials are a billion times smaller than others and mostly consist of pure metals such as gold. In the presence of high energy radiation, they carry medicines into tumour cells and destroy them.
Nanoparticles are crucial to the development of nanomedicine, but since the naked eye cannot perceive nanoscopic objects, how can you tell if cancel cells are being targeted in real-time?
Information obtained through imaging systems such microscopy has helped scientists study this process more easily, with microscopes using x-rays to produce pictures of the nanoparticles’ positions in the cells.
The most widely used microscopes, however, either produce two- dimensional images or are very expensive and destructive towards samples.
To tackle this problem, scientists at the University of Manchester are working to find better imaging systems and cost-effective solutions, and researchers at the Department of Chemistry in Manchester have constructed a three dimensional model of gold nanoparticles inside cells with their exact positions.
This is done using a specially designed microscope, nick-named XRF (Dual-Angle X-Ray Fluorescence). As the name suggests, the dual angle allows scientists to photograph a sample at two different angles generating an ellipsoid model of the cell containing the nanoparticles.
However, to be used in an efficient drug delivery system, these gold nanoparticles must be nontoxic and able to enter the human body without getting rejected. As a result, they are coated in citrate, derived from citric acid commonly found in lemons and oranges to chemically stabilize them.
A specially coded protein is also added to the nanoparticle which ensures that it only targets the harmful cells. This special protein allows the gold nanoparticle to be identified and monitored, akin to human fingerprints – each one unique to their own.
The model generated by the XRF microscope reveals how many gold nanoparticles are absorbed into the body for drug delivery which dramatically influences the amount of drug dose deposited in cancer cells, in turn allowing for greater DNA damage.
While the jury is still out on the likelihood of finding better imaging techniques to view these minuscule nanoparticles, XRF mapping helps realize the vital role of these nanoparticles in drug delivery to assist the treatment of cancerous cells.
Words by: Amrita Chatropadhyay