Nanoparticle sensors and the battle against cancer

19 Nov 2014

Image via Christine Daniloff/MIT

Researchers at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in the US have developed nanoparticle sensors that could revolutionise cancer treatment.

The sensors – which have so far tracked vitamin C – could eventually be used to monitor tumours or other diseases, as well as act as a tool to diagnose illnesses. 

Polymer chains within the nanoparticles can bind to the sensors, allowing doctors to see agents previously hidden.

“For instance, in the scientists’ tests, they used an MRI contrast agent called nitroxide along with Cy5.5, which glows when it encounters vitamin C, as sensors,” explains Engadget

The strands merge into a ‘branched bottlebrush polymer’ pictured above, which can perform MRI and detect vitamin C.

“At the moment, the researchers are still working to refine the nanotechnology, developing another version that can carry three different drugs along with the vitamin C detector. As they can mix and match the sensors, though, they believe that in the future, the polymers could be used to evaluate oxygen radicals in a tumour to determine how aggressive it is.”

This essentially means the bottlebrushes can act as diagnostic tools, potentially becoming key aides to the medical profession.

Future versions of the particles could be designed to detect reactive oxygen species that often correlate with disease, says Jeremiah Johnson, an assistant professor of chemistry at MIT and senior author of the study.

They could also be tailored to detect more than one molecule at a time.

“You may be able to learn more about how diseases progress if you have imaging probes that can sense specific biomolecules,” Johnson says on

Steven Bottle, a professor of nanotechnology and molecular science at Queensland University of Technology, says the most impressive element of the study is the combination of two powerful imaging techniques into one nanomaterial.

“I believe this should deliver a very powerful, metabolically linked, multi-combination imaging modality which should provide a highly useful diagnostic tool with real potential to follow disease progression in vivo,” says Bottle, who was not involved in the study.

Gordon Hunt was a journalist with Silicon Republic