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Media Backgrounder

Fighting Cancer with Nanotechnology:
The NCI Alliance for Nanotechnology in Cancer

Nanotechnology is the development and engineering of devices so small that they are measured on a molecular scale. This emerging field involves scientists from many different disciplines, including physicists, chemists, engineers, information technologists, and material scientists, as well as biologists. Nanotechnology is being applied to almost every field imaginable, including electronics, magnetics, optics, information technology, materials development, and biomedicine.

The Size of Things

Nanoscale devices are one hundred to ten thousand times smaller than human cells. They are similar in size to large biological molecules ("biomolecules") such as enzymes and receptors. As an example, hemoglobin, the molecule that carries oxygen in red blood cells, is approximately 5 nanometers in diameter. Nanoscale devices smaller than 50 nanometers can easily enter most cells, while those smaller than 20 nanometers can move out of blood vessels as they circulate through the body.

Size of Things

Because of their small size, nanoscale devices can readily interact with biomolecules on both the surface and inside cells. By gaining access to so many areas of the body, they have the potential to detect disease and deliver treatment in ways unimagined before now. Since biological processes—including events that lead to cancer—occur at the nanoscale inside cells, nanotechnology offers a wealth of tools that are providing cancer researchers with innovative ways to diagnose and treat cancer.

Nanotechnology's Impact on Cancer

Efforts are underway to safely move new nanotechnology tools into clinical practice to improve both diagnoses and clinical outcomes.

  • Diagnosis and Screening. Nanotechnology has been used to create new and improved imaging techniques to find small tumors. Researchers have shown that incredibly small iron oxide particles (nanoparticulates) can be used with magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to accurately detect cancers that have spread to lymph nodes, without requiring surgery. Nanoparticles such as quantum dots, which emit light of different colors depending on size, are also being studied to enable simultaneous screening of multiple cancer biomarkers.
  • Treatment. Nanoscale drug delivery devices are being developed to deliver anticancer treatments specifically to tumors. Liposomes are one such first-generation "nanocarrier." Liposomal doxorubicin is already used to treat specific forms of cancer, while liposomal amphotericin B treats fungal infections often associated with aggressive anticancer treatment. Nanocarriers can either reach their targets through passive accumulation or by active targeting to proteins found on cancer cells.
  • Combinations. In the near future, nanoscale devices may lead to detection of the earliest stages of cancer while simultaneously delivering anticancer agents to the tumor. Early research has shown that nanoparticulate sensors can detect the cell death that occurs when a cancer cell succumbs to the effects of an anticancer drug. As a highly sensitive means of determining if a therapy is working, this application of nanotechnology could save a patient from months of ineffective medication and debilitating side effects, allowing a switch to a potentially more-effective course of treatment. In addition, such a sensor could greatly accelerate clinical trials of new anticancer agents by demonstrating very early signals of the effectiveness of a drug.

To date, a handful of nanotechnology-based oncology products have reached commercialization. These include nanocarrier-based drugs, such as "biologics", linked to polymers to evade the immune system, chemotherapeutic and radioactive agents linked to antibodies for direct targeting of cancerous cells, and drugs packaged in liposomes or bound to albumin proteins for concentrated effects. The first nanotechnology-based cancer drugs have passed regulatory scrutiny and are already on the market, including Doxil® and Abraxane®.

In recent years, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has approved numerous Investigational New Drug (IND) applications for nano-formulations, enabling clinical trials for breast, gynecological, solid tumor, lung, mesenchymal tissue, lymphoma, central nervous system and genito-urinary cancer treatments. The majority of these trials repurpose the previously approved technologies described above.

Paving the Future:
NCI Alliance for Nanotechnology in Cancer

For nearly two decades, the NCI has taken the lead in integrating nanotechnology into biomedical research through a variety of programs, including the launch of the Alliance for Nanotechnology in Cancer in 2004. The Alliance is a comprehensive, systematized effort encompassing the public and private sectors in multidisciplinary research designed to advance basic scientific discoveries and translate them into viable clinical applications. Based on the success of the Alliance, NCI extended the program in 2010.

The Alliance has four major components:

Moving Ahead Safely

Nanotechnology is a powerful tool for combating cancer and is being put to use in other applications that may reduce pollution, energy consumption, greenhouse gas emissions, and help prevent diseases. There is nothing inherently dangerous about being nanosized. However, as with any new technology, the safety of nanotechnology is continuously being tested. NCI's Alliance for Nanotechnology in Cancer is working to ensure that nanotechnologies for cancer applications are developed responsibly.

To insure that potential risks of nanotechnology are thoroughly evaluated, the NCI Alliance for Nanotechnology in Cancer makes the services of its Nanotechnology Characterization Laboratory (NCL) available to the nanotech and cancer research communities. The NCL performs nanomaterial safety and toxicity testing in vitro (in the laboratory) and using animal models. The NCL tests are designed to characterize nanomaterials that enter the bloodstream, regardless of route. This testing is just one part of the NCL's cascade of tests to evaluate the physicochemical properties, biocompatibility, and effectiveness of nanomaterials intended for cancer therapy and diagnosis. To date, the NCL has evaluated more than 239 different nanoparticles intended for medical applications.

The NCL works closely with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and National Institutes of Standards and Technology to devise experiments that are relevant to nanomaterials, to validate these tests on a variety of nanomaterial types, and to distribute its methods to the nanotech and cancer research communities. The NCL also facilitates the development of voluntary-consensus standards for reliably and proactively measuring and monitoring environment, health and safety results of nanotech applications.


In 2004, NCI committed $144.3 million over five years toward the Alliance for Nanotechnology in Cancer, as an important investment to gain significant clinical advances in the fight against cancer. Following the success of the first five years of the program, NCI committed an additional $150 million to support the program from 2010-2015.

Based on its experience in funding cancer nanotechnology research and on the input received from cancer and nanotechnology experts across the country, NCI envisions that applying nanotechnology to cancer has great potential to lead to significant advances in patient care. This initiative is one of several which NCI is funding to further the knowledge and understanding of ways to detect, diagnose and treat cancer at earlier stages of development.

Learn more about the NCI Alliance for Nanotechnology in Cancer research and programs at