Killing Cancer

The National Cancer Institute reports that in 2012 there were about 70,000 new cases of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma in the U.S. with nearly 19,000 deaths. About 90 percent of those new cases were B-cell lymphoma. Scientists at Northwestern University have been targeting the cancer cell asking one difficult question: “Is it possible to destroy lymphoma without using any drugs?”

Northwestern researchers have developed a secret double agent that could one day change the way cancer is treated.

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Dr. Leo Gordon is a professor of medicine in hematology and oncology, and Dr. Shad Thaxton is an assistant professor of urology, both at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine.

“What we're trying to do is to develop treatments that are better than what we have, both from the standpoint of being more effective and also being less toxic,” said Dr. Gordon.

Chemotherapy, a standard treatment for many cancers, has side effects that most people are familiar with -- like hair loss, nausea, and fatigue -- and is also accompanied with an increased risk of infection.

For that reason, Dr. Gordon and Dr. Thaxton have been developing a new nanoparticle that takes a more targeted approach to treating lymphoma - a type of blood cancer that occurs when white blood cells behave abnormally, eventually forming masses of tumors.

“We're talking about a particle that's 10 nanometers, or about 1,000 times smaller than an individual red blood cell,” said Dr. Thaxton.

Thaxton designed the nanoparticle to be nearly identical to HDL particles, which carry good cholesterol -- a favorite food of cancer cells. The synthetic particles are the same size, shape and chemistry as HDL, but are infused with gold instead of cholesterol. 

“Gold has been introduced to humans before. Gold is, as I said, has a track record of being non-toxic and biocompatible,” he said.

When the gold nanoparticle binds to the cancer cell, it essentially starves it to death.

"The first punch is the particle binding to the cell preventing cholesterol influx, and the second punch is the fact that they're pulling cholesterol out of the cells. And because of those two punches, one and two, they effectively starve the lymphoma cell of cholesterol,” said Dr. Thaxton.

Northwestern's research shows these nanoparticles kill cancer cells and limit tumor growth in mice. And while it's too soon to compare the results to conventional treatments in humans, laboratory findings indicate it could be as effective as chemotherapy.

“We do know from the laboratory experiments, from the cell of culture experiments, that we get similar amount of cell death with this type of methodology as we might be if we added certain chemotherapy drugs to the cell of culture,” said Dr. Gordon. 

Gordon and Thaxton hope to expand their trials to larger animals, and eventually, to humans.

Dr. Gordon points out that studying lymphoma and effective therapies to treat it could have a lasting impact on further understanding the treatment of all sorts of cancers.

“We're hopeful that this work will not just stop at lymphoma, but may be applicable to other cancers as well,” he said.

Visit the PDF below to read more about the Northwestern study.

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