brain_glowBiomedical researchers at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles have invented a tiny drug-delivery system that can identify cancer cell types in the brain through “virtual biopsies” and then attack the molecular structure of the disease.

According to researchers, if successful in human studies, the results could be used to deliver nanoscale drugs that can distinguish and fight tumor cells in the brain without resorting to surgery.

“Our nanodrug can be engineered to carry a variety of drugs, proteins and genetic materials to attack tumors on several fronts from within the brain,” said Julia Ljubimova, MD, PhD, professor of neurosurgery and biomedical sciences at Cedars-Sinai and a lead author of an article published online in the American Chemical Society’s journal ACS Nano.

Ljubimova, director of the Nanomedicine Research Center in the Department of Neurosurgery and director of the Nanomedicine Program at the Samuel Oschin Comprehensive Cancer Institute, has received a $2.5 million grant from the National Institutes of Health to continue the research.

The new delivery system offers two roles: diagnosing brain tumors by identifying cells that have spread to the brain from other organs, and then fighting the cancer with precise, individualized tumor treatment.

Researchers can determine tumor type by attaching a tracer visible on an MRI when the tracer accumulates in the tumor. With the cancer’s molecular makeup identified through this virtual biopsy, researches can load the “delivery system” with cancer-targeting components that specifically attack the molecular structure.

In order to demonstrate that virtual biopsies could distinguish one cancer cell type from another, the researchers implanted different kinds of breast and lung cancers into laboratory mice to represent metastatic disease. They used the nano delivery system to identify and attack the cancers. In each instance, animals that received treatment lived significantly longer than those in control groups.

“Several drugs are quite effective in treating different types of breast cancers, lung cancer, lymphoma and other cancers at their original sites, but they are ineffective against cancers that spread to the brain because they are not able to cross the blood-brain barrier that protects the brain from toxins in the blood,” said Keith Black, MD, chair of the Department of Neurosurgery, director of the Maxine Dunitz Neurosurgical Institute, director of the Johnnie L. Cochran, Jr., Brain Tumor Center and the Ruth and Lawrence Harvey Chair in Neuroscience.

“The nanodrug is engineered to cross this barrier with its payload intact, so drugs that are effective outside the brain may be effective inside as well,” Black added.

Ljubimova, Black and Eggehard Holler, PhD, professor of neurosurgery and director of nanodrug synthesis at Cedars-Sinai, led the study and contributed equally to the article. Rameshwar Patil, PhD, a project scientist in Ljubimova’s laboratory, is first author. Researchers from Cedars-Sinai’s Department of Neurosurgery, Department of Biomedical Sciences, Department of Imaging, and the Samuel Oschin Comprehensive Cancer Institute contributed to the study with colleagues from the University of Southern California and Arrogene Inc., a biotech company associated with Cedars-Sinai.

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