Nanoparticles offer a promising way to deliver cancer drugs in a targeted fashion, helping to kill tumors while sparing healthy tissue. However, most nanoparticles that have been developed so far are limited to carrying only one or two drugs.
MIT chemists have now shown that they can package three or more drugs into a novel type of nanoparticle, allowing them to design custom combination therapies for cancer. In tests in mice, the researchers showed that the particles could successfully deliver three chemotherapy drugs and shrink tumors.
In the same study, which appears in the Sept. 14 issue of the Journal of the American Chemical Society, the researchers also showed that when drugs are delivered by nanoparticles, they don’t necessarily work by the same DNA-damaging mechanism as when delivered in their traditional form.
That is significant because most scientists usually assume that nanoparticle drugs are working the same way as the original drugs, says Jeremiah Johnson, the Firmenich Career Development Associate Professor of Chemistry and the senior author of the paper. Even if the nanoparticle version of the drug still kills cancer cells, it’s important to know the underlying mechanism of action when choosing combination therapies and seeking regulatory approval of new drugs, he says.
Using a method developed by Hemann’s lab, the researchers then investigated how their nanoparticle drugs affect cells. The technique measures cancer drugs’ effects on eight genes that are involved in the programmed cell death often triggered by cancer drugs. This allows scientists to classify the drugs based on which clusters of genes they affect.
The researchers found that nanoparticle-delivered camptothecin and doxorubicin worked just as expected. However, cisplatin did not. Cisplatin normally acts by linking adjacent strands of DNA, causing damage that is nearly impossible for the cell to repair. When delivered in nanoparticle form, the researchers found that cisplatin acts more like a different platinum-based drug known as oxaliplatin. This drug also kills cells, but by a different mechanism: It binds to DNA but induces a different pattern of DNA damage.
The researchers hypothesize that after cisplatin is released from the nanoparticle, via a reaction that kicks off a group known as a carboxylate, the carboxylate group then reattaches in a way that makes the drug act more like oxaliplatin. Many other researchers attach cisplatin to nanoparticles the same way, so Johnson suspects this could be a more widespread issue.