Human interest is usually reserved for objects visible to the naked eye – the shiny new car on the street, a glittering store display – but one piece of matter is gaining an immense amount of interest in the scientific community despite being unable to be seen: the nanoparticle. This tiny molecule is smaller than a blood cell or a grain of pollen yet has researchers, ranging from those in the biomedical to those in optical fields, lining up to unlock its secrets.
Dr. Shuming Nie specializes in the research of nanoparticles for applications in oncology, specifically in the cancers of the lung, breast, and pancreas. Dr. Nie graduated in 1983 from Nankai University in China and obtained his PhD in Chemistry from Northwestern University. He later did his post-doctoral research in Chemistry at both Stanford University and Georgia Tech before deciding to pursue applications of science in the field of medicine.
Using nanomaterials such as polymers and semiconductors to hone in on the tumor and bind to it, Dr. Nie and his team of researchers aim to diagnose and treat cancer. The team is manipulating the morphology, or structure, of the blood vessels around the tumor in a manner they call the passive method. Specifically, the particles are too large to transport through pores of healthy blood vessel. However, the vasculatures of the tumor cells have larger pores, just big enough for the nanoparticles to pass through. To increase their specificity, the nanoparticles are marked with antibodies or ligands that identify certain cell receptors present only on the surface of tumor cells. This is known as the active method.
The use of nanoparticles is not limited to diagnosis. Imagine that a patient is diagnosed with breast cancer and is in need of surgery. The patient would first be injected with or asked to drink a contrasting agent of nanoparticles. Two to three hours later, anesthetics would be administered and the surgery begun. When the surgeon begins to operate, the cancerous tissue will glow fluorescent thanks to the nanoparticles that have bound to the cancer cells, making the operation more efficient.
Dr. Nie’s research has moved on to clinical trials, but the future of nanoparticles still has much more to offer. Many challenges stand in the way, with one of the most important being to design a molecule that will function properly in vivo, as the molecule may function properly in a test tube but may not within the complex and hostile environment of the human body. Nevertheless, from cancer to cardiovascular disease, nanoparticles have a bright future in the improvement of medical screening and treatments.