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How new strides in nanotechnology could improve cancer treatment

A team of researchers at Arizona State University have made some big strides in the field of nanotechnology. They’ve created a nanodevice that can selectively target cancer cells to administer cancer-fighting drugs right where they need to go.

That could mean, a cancer patient might be able to get the treatment they need at a cellular level — instead of blasting their entire body with radiation or chemotherapy. 

It has the potential to change the field. The Show spoke more about it with ASU School of Molecular Sciences professor Hao Yan.

HAO YAN: Well, the idea of a nanotechnology for cancer therapy is to create a nanoscale object, right? And one nanometer is one billionth of a meter, 1/1000 of the width of a human hair, right? Imagine that you can use the nanostructure to carry the drug and the nanostructure will help the drug to be more efficiently delivered to the tumor site and help to eliminate the tumor. That's the goal of nanomedicine, but that there are many challenges we'll talk about.

LAUREN GILGER: Yeah. OK. So let's talk a little bit about how this approach that you're taking here is different from other cancer treatments that have used nanotechnology. It sounds like you solved a pretty foundational problem here.

YAN: Well, you heard about all these robots and other people is trying to create the man-sized robot to do the job, right. So what we do is exactly to shrink that robot into nanometer scale and hoping that we can create intelligent and nanorobot that can help us to deliver the drug only to the site we want it to be and to kill the cancer here.

GILGER: Yeah. So this is inside of a patient's DNA strands. Essentially, this is how small we're talking.

YAN: So the idea here is that we're not using DNA as a genetic material. Instead, we use DNA as a material as a generic material to create the nanobot, right? So the nanobot is folded by strands of DNA into a design shape. Let's say if we want to create a mind kind of a shape or we want to create a bottle, we can use DNA to do the job. 

GILGER: Talk about your own personal view of this, like as you've been working in this field, like, was there a moment at which you realized you had sort of cracked this code, for lack of a better phrase, and and that this would function differently and work in a different more direct way.

YAN: Of course, there's always a eureka moment, right? And you just got inspired by how those amazing biological machines work in the body right? Got inspired by the biological machine and try to create a manmade machine that can mimic the complex functions of those molecules, right? And here we wanted to use it for the nanomedicine applications. But there are a lot of struggles during this course, right? So you design something and that doesn't go to the right site, design something that doesn't release the drug, right? So we have to troubleshoot the design to make it better.

GILGER: Yeah. So it's a lot of guess and check and then it, it, it happened something at a certain point. Wow. So tell us a little bit lastly here about the broader implications of this. Like when we think of cancer treatment, I think most people will probably think of chemotherapy or radiation, something like that surgery often to remove whatever part of the body, you know is cancerous. This goes at it from a very different way.  Will it mean that a cancer patient maybe doesn't have to submit themselves to the broader kind of cancer killing treatments that affect the rest of their bodies? Things like chemo or radiation?

YAN: Yeah, of course, I, I personally believe there are a lot of broader applications of using the nanobot. Chemo is very toxic to the body, right? What we do here is try to avoid the toxicity by only delivering the drug to the tumor site and in an intelligent way.

GILGER: Do you think that this is a game changer, this is the future of cancer treatment.

YAN: Well, it will take a few years to really put this into reality, right, to push this to the clinic. But I strongly believe there is a huge potential of using applying this technology to treat cancer.

GILGER: Wow. OK. We'll leave it there. That is Hao Yan, center director and professor at the Biodesign Center for Molecular Design and Biomimetics at ASU joining us to talk more about this innovation. Thank you so much for joining us. How I really appreciate it.

YAN: Oh, thank you.

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Lauren Gilger, host of KJZZ's The Show, is an award-winning journalist whose work has impacted communities large and small, exposing injustices and giving a voice to the voiceless and marginalized.