Tiny drug ‘vehicles’ could attack cancer cells without damaging healthy cells

Illustration of a ship shooting lazers at a cancer cell.

Illustration: Division of Research

Chemotherapy, the most widely accepted cancer treatment on the market, works by stopping or slowing the growth of cancer cells, which grow and divide rapidly. But, chemotherapy can harm healthy cells that divide quickly, causing a number of unwanted side effects. What if there was an anticancer drug that could attack – and kill – cancer cells without harming healthy cells and devoid of any side effects?

This is exactly what researchers at the Texas A&M Health Science Center Irma Lerma Rangel College of Pharmacy are testing, tiny drug vehicles, similar to “The Magic School Bus” in the popular children’s book series, that are capable of directly targeting cancerous cells in the body, bypassing healthy cells. The goal? Delivering the magic school bus – or cancer drug – directly into cancerous cells, killing them without damaging healthy cells.

Lin Zhu, assistant professor at the Texas A&M Rangel College of Pharmacy, is keen on improving drug effectiveness and minimizing side effects of cancer therapy drugs by using a particular enzyme that is unique to cancer cells and can be used as a target for cancer-specific delivery of anticancer drugs. The novel approach would allow scientists to program a drug nanocarrier (a tiny vehicle that exists on the nanometer scale and can significantly improve the physical, chemical and biological properties of the loaded drug molecules) that can specifically target the cancer-specific enzyme, efficiently enter the cancerous cells and then release the drug inside.

“The nanocarriers are like little missiles and the drug is not released until it enters the tumor,” Zhu said. “This allows high doses of toxic drugs to be given to only destroy the cancerous cells without negatively impacting healthy cells.”

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