A Nano-solution for Cancer Cure

From Lance Armstrong to Yuvraj Singh, the medical fraternity boasts of stories of cancer survivors – heroes who provide inspiration to those diagnosed with the disease to f1ght all odds. The road to recovery, as we may be aware, is not a rosy one. Chemotherapy, currently the most popular way for combating cancer brings with it a number of side-effects that have a lasting impact on the body. There are complications that survivors may have to deal with, post cancer cure. Carbon Nanotubes (CNTs) are today emerging as a viable alternative to existing methods of cancer cure.

CNTs – A welcome entrant

Conventional chemotherapy is based on the principle of arresting the uncontrolled and unrestricted growth of the malignant cells. Apart from being the cause of the disease, malignant cells are identical to normal body cells in most aspects.

Hence, the efficiency of a chemotherapeutic drug not only depends on its power to ‘kill’, but also on the ability to differentiate between the malignant cells and the surrounding normal cells. The delocalised attack by the drug often kills other fast-growing normal tissues leading to side effects such as hair loss. This is where the CNTs prove to be important because they enhance targeted drug delivery thereby localizing the effect of the drug. CNTs have proved to be advantageous in more ways than one. Thanks to their small size and a large surface area, CNTs have an increased penetration power and carrying capacity. They transport the drug to the malignant site and release the drugs, thereby facilitating action without causing obvious damage to the surrounding cells. In the early stages of cancer, the action of a drug requires targeting molecule which detects the receptor in the malignant cell – this is again carried by the CNT. This targeted action minimizes damage to non-malignant cells and enhances the efficiency of the drug. The optical properties of CNT also render it traceable and facilitate in locating the drug inside the system.

Just like any other cure, CNTs have their own disadvantages. Chemists have made observations about the resemblance of CNTs with Asbestos thereby raising concerns about its toxicity. The toxicity of CNTs depends on multiple factors which require being taken care of, appropriately. This is the challenge that Hindumathi, a Ph.D. scholar of the Department of Biotechnology at IIT Madras, has taken up in her research project focussing on the ‘Application of CNTs in Biomedical Treatments’.

The Project

Hindumathi’s work tackles the challenge of minimizing toxicity and maximizing efficiency of the Carbon nanotubes. “CNTs, if improperly selected, can turn toxic and defeat the very purpose for which they were initially synthesised,” she remarks . Recognizing the utmost need to address this issue, Hindumathi aims to achieve minimal toxicity by comparing their action on malignant glioma cells (brain cancer cells). CNTs are rolled graphene sheets forming a cylindrical contour with a hexagonal network of carbon atoms. They are generally synthesised using Chemical Vapour Decomposition or Arc-Discharge methods. The toxicity of CNT is determined by factors such as size, purity, structure and the catalyst used for preparing the CNT. The project aims to arrive at a desirable combination of the above factors to minimize toxicity. Quiz Hindumathi on the challenges faced while experimenting and she is quick to remark that not much importance has been given towards the toxicity of the CNTs. Not all the factors responsible for toxicity were analysed before the clinical trials in previous studies. Thus, reliable data on these factors is virtually non-existent, and Hindumathi is looking to provide breakthroughs on that front.

The Road Ahead

Though costly for small-scale synthesis, large scale synthesis of highly pure CNTs is comparatively cheaper than other nanoparticles, which fall second in terms of cost effectiveness. CNTs have the potential to usher a wave of innovation and impact in cancer cure and through her work, Hindumathi hopes to make a small contribution towards bringing that change.

Hindumathi R is pursuing her Ph.D. at the Department of Biotechnology as part of the interdisciplinary Biomedical Devices and Technology Programme – a 3 institute initiative involving IITM, Christian Medical College (CMC) Vellore and Sree Chitra Tirunallnstitute of Medical Science (SCTIMST), Trivandrum. She is guided by Dr. Pratap Haridoss (IITM) and Dr. Chandra Sharma (SCTIMST). Reading novels and dabbling in poetry are her pastimes, but it’s her one and a half-year-old daughter she enjoys spending time with the most.