Nano-ray of hope for Breast Cancer sufferers

Amy Fernandes

Angelina Jolie’s recent double mastectomy has highlighted the debate on breast cancer. The fact remains, however, that the number of new cases of breast cancer has jumped dramatically worldwide, from about 640,000 in 1980 to more than 1.6 million in 2010, according to the University of Washington researchers’ report. One of the many causes for fatalities is the high toxicity of the treatment and the current disability of affected cells to absorb the dosage.

As for the triple negative breast cancer sufferers this becomes even harder to treat. These breast cancers do not respond to hormonal therapy and require more than one chemotherapy drug for treatment. Unfortunately, such combination chemotherapy increases the toxicity of the treatment, often limiting the extent of therapy tolerated. Further, many women with triple negative breast cancer develop “multidrug resistance” which makes them insensitive to anticancer drugs similar to the concept of antibiotic resistance.

If all goes according to plan by Professor Rinti Banerjee’s books, there will be greater hope of recovery for women suffering from breast cancer, in the assimilation of drugs administered to them. Prof Banerjee heads the Nano-medicine laboratory in the Department of Biosciences & Bioengineering at the Indian Institute of Technology, Bombay (IIT-B).

According to her, “the way anti-cancer drugs are administered today are through intravenous chemo-therapy, which means two separate drugs like paclitaxel and doxorubicin are injected into the system separately. Two things happen. These drugs being high on toxicity randomly kill normal and rapidly dividing cells (like blood cells), while only a fraction actually reaches the cancer. Secondly, the drug resistant cancer cells have a tendency to survive in spite of treatment, by throwing out the drugs using tiny pumps that the cancers develop on the surfaces of the cells. We need to devise ways to trick the cancer cells into taking up the drug. Look at it like a Trojan Horse if you will,” she says, offering an analogy.

She has devised a method by which these drugs can be administered effectively and will be low in toxicity. “What we have done here in the Nano-medicine lab at IIT-B is created a smart onion-like nano-shell which can be ingested orally, is taken up by cancer cells as a nutrient, and which releases the drug in the tumour sites because of specific enzymes in the cancer, thus reducing the overwhelming side-effects and reducing toxicity. The nano-particles are programmed to release the drugs sequentially: Doxorubicin followed by paclitaxel, with a time gap between the two causing reduced toxicity,” explains Prof Banerjee.

The nano-particles are packaged to imitate components of cells and nutrients, so that the cancer cells are lulled into accepting the dosage. “We have conducted lab and animal tests confirming the superior efficacy and reduced toxicity of the oral nano-capsules. We are looking for funds and partners for further regulatory studies prior to clinical trials,” says Prof Banerjee. “It can lead to a safe and patient-friendly way of delivering anti-cancer drugs more effectively. But it is still a couple of years before it sees the light of day,” she says, not wanting to raise expectations.

But to the millions of women suffering from breast cancer and to a future generation of women who may not be able to defy the overwhelmingly rising statistics, this indeed comes as a ray of hope.