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Fighting cancer on a tiny stage

I have to admit that one of my favorite things about my recent article in the newest issue of Stanford Medicine magazine is the fact that my delightful, lovely editors let me indulge my childhood love of The Fantastic Voyage — the film about a submarine crew miniatured and injected into the bloodstream of a spy with a potentially deadly blood clot. Isaac Asimov wrote a novel based on the film, and I read it more times than I could count. I was captivated by the descriptions of the inside of the body, with its vast circulatory system and powerful lungs and even the immune molecules that relentlessly hunt the tiny invader. The story piqued my interest in biology in a way that no teacher had ever been able to accomplish, and it's probably due at least part of the credit for my career choice as a science writer.

That's why it was a joy for me to be able to draw the parallel between the Proteus (the submarine) and its crew and the types of nanotechnology currently being developed to help researchers track down and even destroy cancer cells throughout the body. Of course we're not miniaturizing people (yet?), but in many ways the science fiction story that seemed so improbable 40 years ago is now coming to fruition. Radiologist Sam Gambhir, MD, PhD, and materials scientist Shan Wang, PhD, co-direct the Stanford Center for Cancer Nanotechnology and Excellence for Translational Diagnostics, which is focused on developing new tools to help cancer patients. The center is part of a nationwide effort to harness the power of nanotechnology for health care.

As I described in my story:

Molecules on the nanometer scale operate in a dusky netherworld where the laws of physics wobble at the edge of a quantum galaxy. Electrons behave strangely on such a tiny stage. As a result, the nanoparticles’ essential properties, including their color, melting points, fluorescence, conductivity and chemical reactivity, can vary according to their size...

Researchers like Gambhir and his colleagues have learned how to capitalize on many of these properties in their quests to seek out and destroy cancer cells in the body, or to collect them from a blood sample for further study. By changing the size of the particles, the scientists can “tune” the nanoparticles to behave in specific ways — fluorescing varying colors for imaging purposes, for example, or grabbing onto and then releasing cancer cells for study. Some can be engineered to absorb light energy to power tiny acoustic vibrations that signal the presence of a tumor or to release heat to kill the cells from inside.

It's a tiny stage, to be sure, but the scope of what's possible is dizzying. I can't wait to see what happens next.

Previously: Using "nanobullets" for good – not evil, Stanford team develops nanotech-based microchip to diagnose Type 1 diabetes, and Precision health: a special report from Stanford Medicine magazine
Illustration by Christian Northeast

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