Researchers Develop New Way to Target Tumors Using Nanotechnology

Even as researchers design more-potent new cancer therapies, they face a major challenge in making sure the drugs affect tumors specifically without also harming normal cells. This obstacle has thwarted many promising treatments.

Now, researchers from Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center and Weill Cornell Medicine have devised an innovative strategy for addressing this problem. Rather than aiming directly at cancer cells, they are focusing on targeting a molecule in the blood vessels that feed tumors and using nanotechnology to deliver tiny particles that will stick to the target and unleash their payload of cancer drugs. The researchers described this method in a study published June 29 and featured on the cover of Science Translational Medicine.

“We know that cancer cells in the blood can come into contact with P-selectin on blood vessel walls to stop them from circulating and to begin the formation of metastatic tumors,” said Dr. Daniel Heller, a molecular pharmacologist at Memorial Sloan Kettering and an assistant professor of pharmacology and an assistant professor in the physiology, biophysics and systems biology program at the Weill Cornell Graduate School of Medical Sciences. “So in effect, we’re hacking into the metastatic process in order to intercept the cells and destroy the cancer.”

The target, a protein called P-selectin, serves as a kind of molecular Velcro for cancer treatments. It is especially prevalent in blood vessels that nourish cancer itself — including metastatic tumors, which cause roughly 90 percent of cancer deaths and are especially hard to treat.

“The ability to target drugs to metastatic tumors would greatly improve their effectiveness and be a major advance for cancer treatments,” said lead author Dr. Yosi Shamay, a research fellow in Dr. Heller’s laboratory at Memorial Sloan Kettering.