Shining a Spotlight On Cancer Cells

Nanotechnologies that help surgeons identify tumours and cancer cells could also spare patients the side effects of chemotherapy.

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In a cancer surgery, the surgeon’s ideal goal is to remove all of the cancer cells while sparing as much healthy tissue as possible. In a typical procedure, the tumour is removed along with a small margin of healthy tissue around it. However, the border can be ill-defined or irregular, and when cancer metastasizes it can also spread to surrounding sites like lymph nodes.

But what if a simple injection could make cancer cells light up on the operating table?

Christine Allen, professor of pharmaceutical sciences at the University of Toronto, is using nanotechnology to hone in on tumours and cancer cells. Her platform has the potential to illuminate tumours and more.

“We are designing nanotechnologies that target tumours, that will make the surgeon’s job easier,” explains Allen. “They go in, they see the tumour, they can quickly remove it, and they can also identify metastatic lymph nodes where the cancer has spread to.”

Allen is a co-founder of Nanovista, a start up that is developing lipid-based nanoparticles to illuminate tumours. A multi-modal system, Nanovista’s first product is a stable platform that can deliver several contrast agents together to help visualize a tumour’s geometry. A single injection provides a dye for CT in the surgical planning stages, as well as a fluorescent dye that lights up the tumour in the operating room.

The platform has already been validated in animal models. It is stable for up to two weeks after injection, providing a longer imaging window than many other dyes that last for only minutes or hours. The system is now advancing to phase 1 clinical trials.

Beyond providing information, this platform could also be used to treat cancer. In chemotherapy, patients receive small molecule drugs intravenously, and so they are carried everywhere in the body through the bloodstream.

“This is why when you see patients with cancer, you’ll see that they lose their hair, they become very nauseous. There are a lot of awful side effects that they experience,” says Allen.

Repackaging chemotherapeutic drugs in stable, targeted carriers means more of the drug gets to the tumour, instead of damaging healthy cells elsewhere.

“To the extent that it’s possible, we’re using nanotechnology to decrease those toxic side effects and improve the effectiveness of the drug,” adds Allen.

Each new scientific breakthrough adds to Allen’s hope that one day, cancer patients won’t suffer from the many toxic side effects they experience now.

“As every day goes by, we’re gaining a much better understanding of the disease, of biomarkers associated with the disease,” says Allen. “And I think we’re going to realize that we shouldn’t even use the word cancer because there is no cancer; it’s just so many different kinds of disease.

“My hope down the road is that we’re able to develop treatments that will suit a specific person’s cancer, that will be dedicated to that individual’s cancer, and the molecular profile of that cancer. And we’ll be rid of the toxic side effects that we’ve seen with a lot of the chemotherapy that’s used today.”

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Christine Allen is a professor and the GSK Chair in Pharmaceutics and Drug Delivery in the Leslie Dan Faculty of Pharmacy at the University of Toronto. She is also currentlyserving as interim Dean and previously served as the Associate Dean Academic and Associate Dean Graduate Education. Allen’s research is focused on the design and development of new materials and technologies for the delivery of drugs and contrast agents. She has received career awards from CIHR-Rx&D, CSPS and AFPC. She is co-founder and President of Nanovista Inc., a start-up housed in Johnson & Johnson Innovations JLabs @Toronto, which is focused on the development of multimodal contrast agents to improve the performance of image-guided high precision cancer therapy. Allen completed her doctoral research in the Department of Chemistry at McGill University and post-doctoral research in the Department of Advanced Therapeutics at the B.C. Cancer Agency. She joined University of Toronto from Celator Pharmaceuticals Inc. Allen is the President Elect of the Canadian Society for Pharmaceutical Sciences and a member of the Governing Council for the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada.

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