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Is nanotechnology the key to curing cancer?

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  • Scientist thinks small to beat cancer with nanotechnology
  • Plan to use tiny gold-coated nanoparticles to target tumours
  • Treatment will be less invasive and safer than current methods
  • Approach combines diagnostic and therapeutic technology
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(CNN) -- By 2020, will cancer be a disease of the past? CNN spoke to scientist Naomi Halas and explored her vision of a world where cancer can be cured with tiny gold-coated nanoparticles.

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CNN: With nanotechnology, what sort of scale are we talking about?

Naomi Halas: In nanotechnology, we think small -- very small. A nanometer is the length of ten hydrogen atoms placed end to end. If you take the nanoparticles that we make, 30 of them, and string them end to end like beads on a pearl necklace they would span the tiniest blood vessel in the human body.

CNN: What does working at that scale enable us to do?

art.story.halaslookingup.jpg

Naomi Halas has a vision of a world where cancer is no longer a threat

NH: They're the perfect size to interact in the most effective ways with biological systems because it's a size where one is just a little bit bigger than the fundamental natural building blocks - atoms and molecules. In just the same way that Mother Nature controls atoms and molecules when our bodies make cells or make new types of molecules like proteins or DNA, with nanotechnology we can start to do some of that control ourselves.

CNN: Tell us about your nanoparticles.

NH: We invented a particle that we called nanoshells. The structure is basically a coated sphere. The inner core of this particle is made out of glass and the outer shell is made out of gold.

CNN: How do they work?

NH: Nanoshells are essentially nanolenses. They capture and focus light around themselves. By controlling the inner and outer thickness of this metallic shell we can control the wavelength of light that this nanoparticle will absorb. They can be effectively delivered to a specific organ or tumor through the bloodstream.

Once in place, infrared light is shone through the skin and to the tumor. The nanoshells have dramatic heating properties. They absorb the light and convert light to heat with incredible efficiency. This raises the temperature of their local environment by ten to twenty degrees. It turns out, of course, that we are very temperature-stable organisms, so if you raise the temperature of our cells by twenty degrees our cells will die. So this is a way of very gently and very non-invasively inducing cell death. If I take a nanoshell and I attach it or place it directly next to a cell that I want to destroy and shine light on it then it will convert the light to heat and it will very gently destroy the cell.

CNN: How do nanoshells compare to conventional cancer treatments?

NH: Compared to current cancer treatments, this will be very safe and non-invasive. Obviously, there might be several adjacent cells [that also get destroyed] but that's microns, very tiny dimensions. If you compare that to traditional types of surgery, the precision is just extraordinary.

CNN: What are your hopes for the future of this technology?

NH: I hope that this technology will dramatically improve the prospects for people suffering with cancer. I could see this type of treatment as being a general universal approach for removing lumps in humans in many soft tissue types. In addition to cancer, I'm also interested in seeing how this type of approach might be useful in other diseases as well. That's further along.

CNN: What makes your approach so special?

NH: What's interesting about this approach is that it combines diagnostics and therapeutics. The particles can mark where the tumor is and then, once they are in place, you can illuminate the tumor and those same particles will do their task and heat the local environment and destroy the cells, destroying the tumor.

CNN: What's your ultimate vision of the future of cancer treatment?

NH: My dream is that one day, cancer will be trivial.

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What do you think of Naomi Halas's vision? Do you think we can find a cure for cancer? Tell us in the forum -- or read others' views on the future. E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

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