Nanotechnology is a "disruptive technology," which will drive a new generation of cancer diagnostic and therapeutic products and result in dramatically improved cancer outcomes, according to Piotr Grodzinski, Ph.D., program director for cancer nanotechnology at the NCI.
His presentation was given at the recent Strategic Research Institute "Nanomedicine: Commercializing Drug Discovery, Delivery, and Diagnostics", held in Cambridge, MA. Dr. Grodzinski painted a grim picture of the current status of the cancer. This year 570,000 Americans will die of cancer, and the costs of treatment will run in the neighborhood of $200 billion. Despite this vast expenditure of funds, the death rate has declined slowly in the last decade.
Meanwhile the number of individuals living with cancer has increased dramatically over the last 35 years, from 3 million to 10 million. On one hand this is welcome news, as cancer victims find themselves alive and their diseases managed effectively. On the other hand, it raises the disturbing question of the staggering cost of new treatments, especially biological molecules, including proteins.
To change this bleak situation, an armory of nanoparticle technologies is being mobilized, including dendrimers, nanoparticles, quantum dots, and fullerenes. All of these technologies offer unique opportunities for biotech companies to develop entirely new strategies for the treatment of malignancies.
Applications of nanoparticles include tissue targeting, sensing and imaging, localized therapy, and the use of much lower doses.
Nanotechnology's benefits are especially relevant to cancer since the potential sensitivity of these platforms could allow the early detection of tumors before the cancer metastasizes. Technologies under development could allow DNA and protein markers to be detected in the same sample simultaneously.
Nanostructures lend themselves to loading with either drugs or tags, including fluors, so the tumor can be targeted, identified, and treated using much lower levels of the therapeutic agents.
Because nanotechnology draws on diverse disciplines, including engineering, physics, and biology, it requires an unprecedented level of collaboration and mutual support. For this reason, the NCI has created the Alliance for Nanotechnology in Cancer, working over the past six years to integrate nanotechnology into biomedical research.
"We know that melding nanotech plus cancer research produces near-term, clinically relevant advances," said Dr. Grodzinski. The Alliance embarked on an $144 million initiative in 2004. This massive program encompasses the public and private sectors, emphasizing cross-disciplinary collaborations to ignite nano-product development and commercialization.
Private sector participation will help to ensure development and create a commercialization pathway to accelerate these nanotechnology applications in the clinic. The Nanotechnology Characterization Laboratory (NCL), in particular, is consolidating standards through assembly of its assay cascade and prequalification of new materials to drive product development.
Encouraging such collaborations and leveraging existing federal resources reduce the risk of new product investment to commercial entities, as illustrated by the range of activities in the field of nanomedicine presented at the conference.