A Golden Approach to Killing Cancer

Jennifer West, the Fitzpatrick Family University Professor of Engineering at Duke, is internationally recognized for pioneering advances in nanotechnology and tissue engineering. Cancer treatment is notoriously brutal—which is why Jennifer West’s work is creating such a
buzz. The Duke engineer has developed a way to kill tumors without the kinds of negative side effects associated with chemotherapy and radiation.

West and her team discovered that they could destroy soft-tissue tumors by injecting gold-covered nanoshells about 100 nanometers (nm) in size into the body, then heating them up with light. The method is currently being tested in three human clinical trials focused on prostate, lung, and head and neck cancers.

“From our animal trials, we saw a complete regression of tumors and no regrowth or adverse effects,” West said. “This is different from using drugs because it’s really a mechanical effect. You’re not binding something to a biochemical–you’re cooking something.”

This method works, she said, because blood vessels that form quickly to support tumors are leaky, and they readily absorb the gold-covered nanoshells. The gold covering is 15 nm thick–laid on an inert silica core
at the exact thickness and curvature needed to absorb infrared light. (One nanometer is approximately 1/75,000th the thickness of
a human hair, or 1/8,000th the size of a red blood cell).

Roughly 24 hours after injecting the nanoshells, researchers shine a 800 nm wavelength infrared light over the cancerous tissue for four minutes. The gold, the most biocompatible inert, metal, heats up and burns away the tumor. The novel treatment is breaking new ground with the Food and Drug Administration, West said. It’s one of the first nanotechnologies to seek agency approval, so they’re navigating new regulatory waters. Her company, Nanospectra Biosciences, Inc., hopes to bring a product to market within two years.Nanoshells, appearing as tiny points of light, accumulate in tumor vessels.