In 1966, an intrepid medical team took a fictional “Fantastic Voyage” through the human body to treat a blood clot in a man’s brain and save his life. Movie magic miniaturized the crew, allowing an atomic-sized medical team to operate on the cellular level within the brain.
It was the stuff of Hollywood dreams — but some 40 years later, medical science is turning the impossible into reality. Developing nanotechnology holds promise to deliver therapies directly to brain tumors.
Just last year, a pair of City of Hope researchers started a unique multidisciplinary collaboration with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) to pursue such therapies. Behnam Badie, M.D., chief of the Division of Neurosurgery and director of the Brain Tumor Program, and Babak Kateb, former director of research development for the Brain Tumor Program, joined with two colleagues and two JPL scientists to investigate new therapeutic approaches for brain cancer treatment using modern technology.
“There is a need for the development of new therapies for brain tumor patients that will selectively target tumor cells and spare the surrounding healthy tissue to a much greater degree than is possible with current treatment options,” said Badie.
“Our research partnership with JPL has already advanced cancer research in the lab and may eventually enable us to develop novel therapeutics for brain tumors and other cancers.”
Unlike the tools in the 60s movie, today’s investigative technology is already on the atomic scale. Called multiwalled carbon nanotubes, or MWCNTs, these tiny cylindrical structures are composed of rolls of carbon atoms. Supplied by JPL researchers, these MWCNTs may be part of a potential immune-based treatment for brain cancer.
In its laboratory research, the team is testing whether they can load genetic materials into MWCNTs and link these nanotubes to special immune cells in the brain called microglia. Microglia act as scavengers, engulfing debris and migrating to brain tumors.
The team wants to know if microglia can deliver MWCNTs — and their special payload of cancer-fighting DNA and siRNA — to brain tumors.
City of Hope turned to JPL engineers who are well-versed in the construction of MWCNTs. Harish Manohara, Ph.D., who leads JPL’s Nano and Micro Systems Group, and Michael Bronikowski, Ph.D., a senior member of the group, refocused their gaze from the vast reaches of outer space to the mysterious inner space of the human brain to become part of the project. They provided the study’s MWCNTs.
“It is immensely satisfying to learn that the technology we are developing for the robotic exploration of space might someday be used in the targeted treatment of brain tumors that may save lives,” said Monahara.
This multidisciplinary team of scientists also included research scientist Leying Zhang, Ph.D., and research associate Michelle Van Handel, Ph.D., both in City of Hope’s Division of Tumor Cell Biology. Results from the group’s most recent work were published in the journal NeuroImage.
“Our study shows that the multiwalled carbon nanotubes loaded with DNA or siRNA were internalized at a high level in microglia,” said Kateb, lead author of the study. “Results suggest that these nanotubes could be used as a nontoxic and biodegradable delivery vehicle for targeted therapies against brain tumors.”
The team now is focusing on studying the delivery capacity and toxicity of MWCNTs within in vivo brain tumor models.