Ultrasharp Rainbow Nanoparticles Can Change Cancer Diagnosis and Treatment

By Nate Hinkel

The discovery by Vladimir Zharov, Ph.D., director of the Phillips Classic Laser and Nanomedicine Laboratory, Department of Otolaryngology — Head and Neck Surgery at UAMS, and his team is published today in Nature Photonics, a prestigious monthly journal featuring groundbreaking research in all areas of light generation, manipulation and detection.

The finding builds on Zharov’s previous discoveries involving the use of cancer-detecting gold and magnetic nanoparticles, including the ability to inject them into the bloodstream to target, capture and eventually kill circulating tumor cells with the use of specialized laser-activated nanobubbles surrounding nanoparticles.

Zharov’s new discovery finds that by manipulating the color of the gold nanoparticles with a laser before injection into the bloodstream, they can return more precise and valuable diagnostic information as they match up with specific biomarkers in a patient’s bloodstream. This laser-based color amplification or inhibition that leads to “color holes” as a sign of therapeutic efficiency is universal and can be applied to the existing and newly developing world of nanoparticles.

“It is well-known that gold is a metal with one general yellow color,” Zharov said. “However, in the nano-world, the color of gold nanoparticles can easily be adjusted in a broad spectral range from blue to red and near-infrared simply by changing their shapes, sizes and clustering. This can be very important for simultaneously targeting several disease-associated biomarkers in the blood relative to the specific colors, giving us accurate information of a specific disease or type of cancer.”

This approach does, however, face some challenges, including the color-absorption qualities of existing nanoparticles that can make the spectra too broad, leading to overlapping colors.

“This limitation led to using not more than two colored nanoparticles, which unfortunately makes it extremely difficult to identify the abnormal cells among the normal cells in a complex biological environment like the bloodstream,” Zharov said.

Zharov’s finding includes the promise that as many as seven nanoparticles with the seven colors of the spectrum can be used simultaneously in the bloodstream to target seven cancer biomarkers. Zharov’s colors, however, are much sharper than previous technology showed, and shifted to near-infrared biotissue transparency to potentially reach as many as 30 color-coded biomarkers.

“This is impossible with existing diagnostic techniques,” Zharov said. “This process can provide ultrasensitive blood cancer tests allowing us to identify tumor cells among normal blood cells at an extremely early stage of cancer. Once detected, the same nanoparticles with the ultra-sharp multi-colors can be used for a more precise multiplex elimination of circulating tumor cells.”

Recently Zharov and a member of his team, Ekaterina Galanzha, M.D., Ph.D., along with Alex Biris, Ph.D., of the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, received three joint nanomedicine-related grants from the U.S. Department of Defense to explore the new discoveries and similar approaches for the diagnosis and treatment of breast cancer.

“Nanomedicine holds the key to giving many patients the hope of earlier cancer diagnosis and better treatment,” Zharov said. “By continuing to advance this science we can also solve many of the challenging problems of fundamental biology and clinical medicine.”

UAMS is the state’s only comprehensive academic health center, with colleges of Medicine, Nursing, Pharmacy, Health Related Professions and Public Health; a graduate school; a 540,000-square-foot hospital; a statewide network of regional centers; and six institutes: the Winthrop P. Rockefeller Cancer Institute, the Jackson T. Stephens Spine & Neurosciences Institute, the Myeloma Institute for Research and Therapy, the Harvey & Bernice Jones Eye Institute, the Psychiatric Research Institute and the Donald W. Reynolds Institute on Aging. It is the only adult Level 1 trauma center in the state. UAMS has 2,836 students and 761 medical residents. It is the state’s largest public employer with more than 10,000 employees, including nearly 1,150 physicians who provide medical care to patients at UAMS, Arkansas Children’s Hospital, the VA Medical Center and UAMS’ Area Health Education Centers throughout the state. Visit www.uams.edu or uamshealth.com.