Groundbreaking research on drug delivery to cancer cells

A new nanoparticle developed by scientists of the Trabolsi Research Group at NYU Abu Dhabi could change the future of how drug delivery systems are used in the treatment of cancer.

Nanoparticles are tiny microscopic particles that have diverse applications in various fields such as physics, chemistry, optics, and medical science while drug delivery systems are a breakthrough approach in biomedical engineering that enables doctors to direct highly potent drugs to specific disease-infected sites in the human body.

Research scientist Farah Benyettou collaborated with Ali Trabolsi, assistant professor of chemistry at NYU Abu Dhabi and head of the Trabolsi Research Group, to create a magnetic nanoparticle that can carry the chemotherapy drug Doxorubicin and can be guided straight to tumour sites.

“What we are trying to do is to use existing therapies like chemotherapy and thermal therapy but in a new way. The idea is to fight cancer at the same level that it develops in,” said Trabolsi.

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Anticancer drugs have to be administered in high doses to make sure that the required dose reaches the tumour but these drugs also attack healthy cells because they can't differentiate between them. This causes severe side effects.

Trabolsi Research Group at NYU Abu Dhabi

Anticancer drugs have to be administered in high doses to make sure that the required dose reaches the tumour but these drugs also attack healthy cells because they can't differentiate between them. This causes severe side effects. Drug delivery systems are safer alternatives. They even provide the option of controlling the amount of drug released at any given time while enhancing its absorption. This results in administration of lower doses.

Benyettou’s magnetic iron-oxide nanoparticles act like special vehicles that ferry the drug straight to the tumour and can be directed using magnets. When exposed to alternating magnetic fields, they absorb the energy and increase the temperature of the tumour thereby killing them using a combination of chemotherapy and thermal therapy. They can even be observed using an MRI.

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These nanoparticles are designed to release the drugs only in a particular environment and are eliminated naturally from the body once their job is done.

Trabolsi Research Group

These nanoparticles are also designed to release the drugs only in a particular environment — the more acidic environment of tumour cells — which means that they are harmless to healthy cells and are also eliminated naturally from the body once their job is done. The Trabolsi group has also employed a structure where several nanoparticles cluster together to create a porous ‘super’ nanoparticle that can ferry more medicine.

Cancer cells evolve to resist the very drugs that treat it. When these drugs try to diffuse into the drug-resistant cell one by one, which is how they usually gain entry, it triggers an ‘alarm’ and is denied entry. In vitro tests have shown that these magnetic nanoparticles are effective against doxorubicin-resistant cancer cell lines because they use a different method to enter these cells thereby cheating them into thinking that they are harmless.

“This is how these nanoparticles work so effectively against cancer cells. Almost like a Trojan horse,” explained Benyettou.

For Trabolsi, all of these properties combined with its affordability and “how relatively easy they are to prepare under 30 minutes” is evidence that they could change the way cancer treatment is approached.

This research was made possible by two grants awarded by the Al Jalila Foundation to the Trabolsi Research Group. Papers detailing the properties of this class of nanoparticles were recently published by Chemistry - A European Journal, and RSC Advances.