A new ‘smart’ polymer has been developed by biomedical engineer Jinming Gao and colleagues at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas, TX, that has the ability to label tumors with great accuracy. This new technique could allow surgeons to quickly identify a tumor and remove all of it as well as detect metastasis early on.
The smart polymer works to pinpoint tumors because of the acidic environment of cancer tissues. Although other researchers have developed functional polymer nanoparticles, quantum dots or carbon nanotubes to identify tumors, they tend to accumulate at higher concentrations in a tumor but also label normal tissue making it difficult to distinguish normal tissue from diseased.
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The way the smart polymer works is that it has the ability to dissociate below a certain pH. In this case, the smart polymer nanoprobe is carrying infrared fluorophores which are released at lower pH in the tumor region. The researchers designed the probe to dissociate at a pH of 6.9. The pH of blood runs around 7.35 so the probe will not release the fluorophores in the blood, only in the tumor.
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The researchers tested this nanoprobe in mice on a number of tumors. Results demonstrated that the nanoparticles were able to label tumors with great accurarcy. The labeled tumor was viewed using near-infrared fluorescence imaging. In one lung tumor, they could identify small, cancerous nodules just 1mm3 in size. The researchers report that they found no obvious signs of toxicity in mice such as weight loss or loss in kidney function.
Gao and colleagues are trying to get this new technique into clinics and they plan to continue their study on potential toxicity in greater depth. Gao notes, “I think it’s industrialisable. We’re trying to work with different companies now who want to negotiate the licence with our university.”