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Frequently Asked Questions: Cancer Nanotechnology

November 2013

  1. What is nanotechnology? What is a nanometer?
  2. What are nanoscale biomedical devices?
  3. Why is nanotechnology an important tool for cancer research?
  4. What is the promise of nanotechnology for cancer detection and therapy?
  5. What has been NCI's experience in funding cancer-related nanotechnology research and development?
  6. What is the NCI Alliance for Nanotechnology in Cancer and how was it developed?
  7. Is NCI taking steps to ensure that all nanodevices are safe for the individual and the environment?
  8. What is the Nanotechnology Characterization Laboratory?
  9. Are there any real world examples showing the promise of nanotechnology?
  10. Iím interested in learning about cancer treatments/clinical trials related to nanotechnology. How do I find information about participating in clinical trials?


1. What is nanotechnology? What is a nanometer?

Nanotechnology is the creation of useful materials, devices, and systems used to manipulate matter at an incredibly small scale—between 1 and 100 nanometers.

A nanometer is one billionth of a meter—1/80,000 the width of a human hair, or about ten times the diameter of a hydrogen atom. Such nanoscale objects can be useful by themselves, or as part of larger devices containing multiple nanoscale objects.

Nanotechnology has the potential to enable the translation of molecular-based science into clinical advances, thereby facilitating major progress in the early detection, diagnosis and treatment of cancer.

The emerging field of nanotechnology involves scientists from many different disciplines including physicists, chemists, engineers, material scientists and biologists. Nanotechnology is being applied to almost every industry imaginable, including, but not limited to electronics, magnetics and optoelectronics, energy, information technology, materials development, transportation, pharmaceuticals, and biomedical applications.

2. What are nanoscale biomedical devices?

Nanoscale devices are the same size as many important biological objects, and therefore can be used to see and manipulate biological activity invisible to the naked eye. Nanoscale devices are smaller than human cells, which are 10,000 to 20,000 nanometers in diameter, and cellular components, such as mitochondria, that are inside cells. Nanoscale devices are similar in size to large biomolecules, such as enzymes and receptorsóhemoglobin, for example, is approximately five nanometers in diameter, while a cell's wall is around six nanometers thick. They can, therefore, perform tasks inside the body that would otherwise not be possible.

For example, nanoscale devices smaller than 50 nanometers can easily enter most cells, while those smaller than 20 nanometers can move through the walls of blood vessels. As a result, nanoscale devices can readily interact with molecules on both the cell surface and within the cell. Larger devices, such as microfluidic chips, are also being developed with nanoscale components for advanced diagnostics applications.

3. Why is nanotechnology an important tool for cancer research?

There are several reasons that nanotechnology could transform cancer research and clinical approaches to cancer care:

  • Most biological processes, including those processes leading to cancer, occur at the nanoscale. For cancer researchers, nanotechnology offers unprecedented means to monitor and manipulate these processes in the search for cures.
  • The ability to simultaneously interact with multiple critical proteins and nucleic acids at the molecular level will provide a better understanding of the complex behavior of cells in their normal state as well as the transformation into malignant cells.
  • Nanotechnology provides a platform for integrating research in proteomics—the study of the structure and function of proteins, including the way they work and interact with each other inside cells—with other scientific investigations into the molecular nature of cancer.

4. What is the promise of nanotechnology for cancer detection and therapy?

Nanotechnology offers a wealth of tools that are providing cancer researchers with new and innovative ways to diagnose and treat cancer. Nanotechnology research is leading to advances in early detection, molecular imaging, assessment of therapeutic efficacy, targeted and multifunctional therapeutics, and prevention and control of cancer.

Already, nanotechnology has been used to create new and improved ways to find small tumors through imaging, and work is currently being done to move these new research tools into clinical practice. Nanoscale drug delivery devices are being developed to deliver anticancer therapeutics specifically to tumors, and some are already on the market.

In the near future, nanoscale devices could offer the potential to detect cancer at its earliest stage and simultaneously deliver anticancer agents to the discovered tumor. Nanotechnology provides opportunities to prevent cancer progression. For example, nanoscale systems, because of their small dimensions, could be applied to stop progression of ductal types of breast cancers.

Examples of nanotechnology in cancer research today include the following:

  • Nanoscale cantilevers and nanowire sensors can detect biomarkers of cancer from a single cell, which heretofore was unimaginable.
  • Nanoparticles can aid in imaging malignant lesions, so surgeons know where the cancer is and how to remove it.
  • Nanoshells can kill tumor cells selectively, so patients don't suffer terrible side effects from healthy cells being destroyed.
  • Dendrimers can sequester drugs to reduce systemic side effects, deliver multiple drugs to maximize therapeutic impact, and rapidly discern effectiveness of a drug.
  • Biosensors can monitor genetic changes and hyperplasia to prevent cancer progression.

5. What has been NCI's experience in funding cancer-related nanotechnology research and development?

The NCI has been a leader in funding cancer-related nanotechnology research for nearly two decades. The NCI has funded numerous projects that have demonstrated the potential of cancer nanotechnology.

In 2004, NCI launched the Alliance for Nanotechnology in Cancer to advance a number of promising nanotechnologies for the diagnosis, treatment and prevention of cancer, in its first five years. The success of the program led NCI to announce in September 2010 its continued support of the Alliance with the award of five-year, multi-institution grants to generate new preventative, diagnostic and therapeutic approaches to cancer in areas where improvements cannot be realized using existing technologies. Given the progress to date, the NCI committed an investment of approximately $30 million per year for the next five years for the second phase of the Alliance’s research and training initiatives.

In addition, NCI has funded several highly successful cancer nanotechnology research projects via the Unconventional Innovations Program (UIP) and the Innovative Molecular Analysis Technologies Program. The UIP began in 1999 and invested $50 million over a ten year period. Some examples of work conducted by these projects include novel technologies for noninvasive detection, diagnosis, and treatment of cancer, and immunoliposome technology for tumor-targeted drug/probe delivery.

6. What is the NCI Alliance for Nanotechnology in Cancer?

To capitalize on the promise of nanotechnology in cancer, the National Cancer Institute (NCI) launched the Alliance for Nanotechnology in Cancer in September 2004. The Alliance, built on a strong foundation of science and scientific accomplishment, is a comprehensive, systematized initiative encompassing the public and private sectors. The Alliance is designed to speed the use of nanotechnology to address the major challenges in clinical oncology and basic cancer research.

The Alliance has five major components:

  • Centers of Cancer Nanotechnology Excellence (CCNEs) – NCI has funded nine multi-disciplinary Centers that are the primary components for discovery and tool development of nanotechnology in clinical oncology.
  • Cancer Nanotechnology Platform Partnerships (CNPP) – NCI has awarded 12 partnerships that are designed to promote and support individual, circumscribed multi-disciplinary research projects that will address major barriers and fundamental questions in cancer using innovative nanotechnology solutions.
  • Cancer Nanotechnology Training Centers (CNTC) – NCI has named six CNTCs with the goal of educating and training researchers from diverse fields in the use of nanotechnology-based approaches to advance understanding of cancer biology and create new methods and tools for the prevention, diagnosis and treatment of cancer.
  • Pathway to Independence Awards in Cancer Nanotechnology Research – Seven awards have been funded for the transition of post-doctoral scientists working on cancer nanotechnology from mentored environments to independence.
  • Nanotechnology Characterization Laboratory (NCL) – The Nanotechnology Characterization Laboratory (NCL) performs and standardizes the preclinical characterization of nanomaterials intended for cancer therapeutics and diagnostics developed by researchers from academia, government and industry.

7. Is NCI taking steps to ensure that all nanodevices are safe for the individual and the environment?

The NCI recognizes the importance of advancing our knowledge and understanding of the technology, while also ensuring that the technology is safe and effective. The success of efforts in the field is contingent upon scientific excellence in research and development that is both ethical and safe for the body and the environment. The NCI is systematically addressing these issues within the purview of its biomedical expertise and its collaborations, primarily through its Nanotechnology Characterization Laboratory. The NCI partnered with the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) to help develop criteria to define all the key physical and biological characteristics of nanodevices intended for use in cancer-related nanotechnology research. Furthermore, the NCI expanded its interaction with the FDA to facilitate smoother transition from bench-to-bedside by ensuring that researchers have sufficient and appropriate data to guide the development of safe and efficient nanodevices.

8. What is the Nanotechnology Characterization Laboratory?

One of the major challenges in life sciences and cancer research at this time is the need to thoroughly delineate the biological and physical characteristics of given nanotechnologies as they are developed, so that research knowledge can be shared and built upon as rapidly as possible.

With the vast number of nanodevices being used in cancer research, it is necessary to develop a common lexicon or vocabulary that researchers can use to better understand their test results. This lexicon can also be used by researchers who are beginning new research projects to avoid initial and time-consuming characterization efforts. The Nanotechnology Characterization Laboratory (NCL) was established by the NCI to provide this framework. A primary objective of the NCL is to develop data on how nanomaterials and nanodevices interact with biological systems. These research endeavors chart a common baseline and compile scientific data that inform research and development as well as regulatory actions involving nanoscale diagnostics, imaging agents and therapeutics. Moreover, this information is linked to NCI-supported Cancer Centers and related programs through public databases available through NCI's cancer Biomedical Informatics Grid (caBIG®).

9. Are there any real world examples showing the promise of nanotechnology?

Yes, there are several nanotechnology-based drugs on the market and many more in clinical trials, including the following applications:

  • Liposomes, which are first generation nanoscale devices, are being used as drug delivery vehicles in several products. For example, liposomal amphotericin B is used to treat fungal infections often associated with aggressive anticancer treatment and liposomal doxorubicin is used to treat some forms of cancer. Nanoparticulate iron oxide particles can be used with magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to accurately detect metastatic lesions in lymph nodes without surgery.
  • Linking "biologic" drugs to polymers is being used to prevent the drug from inappropriately activating the immune system.
  • Chemotherapeutic and radioactive agents are being targeted directly to cancerous cells by attaching antibodies that seek out molecules on their cell surface.
  • Chemotherapeutic drugs like paclitaxel are bound to and concentrated on albumin proteins to render them more effective at the target.

10. Iím interested in learning about cancer treatments/clinical trials related to nanotechnology. How do I find information about participating in clinical trials?

For background information about clinical trials - what they are, whether they might be of benefit to you - see Learn About Clinical Trials. To find a specific cancer clinical trial, see the Clinical Trials Search Form. More clinical trial-related information is available in other areas of the Clinical Trials section of the NCI website.