Cancer is one of the leading causes of death in the world with diagnoses and death rates rising year after year; according to the World Health Organisation, in 2018 alone, there were 18.1 million new cases and 9.6 million deaths. Currently, there are several well-known techniques for cancer treatments including surgery, radiation, and chemotherapy. However, these treatments have a number of limitations and side effects, including nausea, vomiting, and loss of appetite, which means alternative approaches are needed.
Researchers from Nazarbayev University are studying the use of nanomaterials as a form of cancer treatment that could be used to complement traditional treatments such as chemotherapy and radiation.
Prof. Vassilis Inglezakis, Associate Professor of Chemical & Materials Engineering, said: “The goal is to replace existing therapies to the greatest extent possible and complement them in a way that is beneficial to the patient. This should reduce side-effects and help to remove harmful by-products that are produced when patients undergo traditional cancer treatments.”
Researchers Zhannat Ashikbayeva and Prof. Daniele Tosi, alongside Prof. Inglezakis, focused on the application of nanomaterials in thermal ablation therapy. Thermal ablation is a technique used in cancer therapy to eliminate cancerous cells or tissue by applying external electromagnetic waves to locally increase the temperature. However, the choice of a suitable heat delivery route to the cancerous tissue is a problem as existing methods of delivery show difficulty in differentiating between tumours and surrounding healthy tissue, leading to the damage of non-cancerous neighbouring cells.
Therefore, the use of nanomaterials in delivering thermal ablation is an attractive solution as the nanomaterials can trigger heat increase in specific tumour regions. There are various types of nanomaterials which can be chosen including magnetic nanoparticles, gold nanoparticles, copper-based nanoparticles, nanorods, nanoshells, and carbon nanotubes. The chosen nanomaterial is then applied to the cancerous cells which increases heat by absorbing infrared light, electromagnetic, or radio frequency waves. This allows the therapy to target and destroy the cancer cells specifically without adversely affecting healthy surrounding cells. This technique is flexible, low cost, and minimally invasive.
At present, scientists have successfully tested nanomaterials to heat sources in vitro by using animal tissue but the translation to commercial clinical use has not yet occurred. The researchers of this project, along with Nazarbayev University, aim to stimulate further research into nanomaterials for cancer treatments through internal and external funding. Another relevant project is entitled “Nanoporous and Nanostructured Materials for Medical Applications (NanoMed)” funded by the European Commission (2017-2021). This project aims to increase intersectoral and international collaboration between Europe and Kazakhstan in studying the use of advanced porous materials and nanomaterials for the treatment of radiation-related conditions. Chronic exposure to radiation and derivatives of drugs used in cancer therapies can dramatically affect the quality of life of the people affected and at present the treatment is costly and inefficient, but it is anticipated that investing into nanomaterial research will improve treatments. Radiation is a serious problem for countries involved in the project, such as Kazakhstan and Ukraine, due to the effects of the Semipalatinsk test site and the Chernobyl disaster.