Nanotech and the War on Cancer

In November of 1942, after the Allied Powers had secured an important victory in North Africa, Winston Churchill famously declared "Now this is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning."

It's a great quote, and I was reminded of it in the context of society's "war on cancer," when, earlier this week, the journal Nature Medicine reported that a new genetic test, using a gene chip made by Affymetrix (Nasdaq: AFFX  ) , was demonstrated to be 80% accurate in predicting which drugs would be effective against a particular cancer.

This is great new news to be sure, but it is far cry from actually winning the war on cancer -- a euphemism President Nixon coined in 1971 -- because it means that the war is still ongoing.

First, learn about your opponents
Before one can defeat an opponent, it helps to know who that opponent is and where they are located. In the war on cancer, we are still having some problems on this front, although things are getting better.

Throughout the history of modern medicine -- particularly clinical oncology -- new advances in treating illness have often followed new ways of imaging the human body. For instance, computed tomography has provided better images to surgeons and permitted them to locate tumors with greater accuracy before removing them. Similarly, magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) and positron emission tomography (PET) have given doctors and patients alike a better way to track a tumor's metabolic activity and thus offered a quicker method of assessing the effectiveness of a particular type of cancer treatment.

Thanks to advances in CT technology from Siemens (NYSE: SI  ) and MRI and PET technology from General Electric (NYSE: GE  ) , all of these technologies are getting progressively better. Unfortunately, they also still have shortcomings. Either they are not sensitive enough to identify very small tumors, or they only capture a temporary snapshot of how a particular drug regimen is working against a certain cancer.

This, however, is about to change -- and a number of the new advances will come from the field of nanotechnology. For instance, companies such as Invitrogen (Nasdaq: IVGN  ) and Schering AG are actively experimenting with quantum dots, carbon nanotubes, and other unique nanoscale materials to manufacture contrast agents that shine brighter, last longer, and are more stable within the human body. These characteristics will allow doctors to detect cancer tumors at an earlier stage, which means treatment can begin that much sooner -- when it is often much more effective. (The survival rate for ovarian cancer, for example, increases to almost 90% if it is detected at an early stage.)

Then, gather better intelligence
To effectively fight and win a war, it also helps to have superior intelligence-gathering capabilities. Here, again, nanotechnology offers some promise. Certain nanoparticles -- thanks to the unique characteristics they can be imbued with -- can be made to attach only to specific cancer cells. And, because of their small size, they can then penetrate those cancer cells. These traits are the equivalent of a spy being able to infiltrate an enemy's camp and learn their vulnerabilities.

This promising capability, which scientists at Harvard and researchers at Massachusetts General Hospital are currently developing, implies that doctors and patients might be able to watch in real time how cancer cells are reacting to specific drug therapies. If a drug is working, the treatment and dosage can be further manipulated to enhance its effectiveness. And if it is not, treatment can be abandoned at an earlier stage.

This offers two advantages. First, it can spare many cancer patients months of unnecessary pain and suffering (from the adverse side effects of chemotherapy) by ending ineffective treatments that much sooner. It also means that secondary treatments can be started at an earlier stage.

Finally, develop powerful new weapons
In war, an ideal solution would be to have a "smart" platform that could both detect and then eradicate an enemy. The same is true with cancer.

And this leads us to perhaps the most significant nanotechnology-related development in the war on cancer: the creation of nanoscale devices that can both image cancer and then effectively deliver drug therapies. Essentially, the promise is to manufacture "smart" devices that can detect unique cancer cells and deliver a drug molecule (or a more potent combination of different drug molecules) directly into the cancer cells.

One such platform now under development is a dendrimer, and it is now being pursued by a couple of different companies. One such company is Avidimer, a small, private start-up located in Michigan, which expects to file an Investigational New Drug (IND) application with the Food and Drug Administration very soon. At a minimum, this implies that final approval (which is not guaranteed) is at least five to seven years away.

Fool's final word
Nevertheless, there's great confidence in nanotechnology's ability to deliver such a weapon. As Dr. Andrew von Eschenbach, director of the National Cancer Institute, said last year, "Nanotechnology has the potential to radically increase our options for the prevention, diagnosis, and treatment of cancer." To back up this statement, he then added that because of nanotechnology he felt that it was possible to "eradicate cancer as a chronic killing disease by 2015."

Nine years is still a long time -- especially for anyone who is suffering from cancer or has a loved one suffering from it -- but perhaps this breakthrough signals that we have reached the "end of the beginning" of the war on cancer.

Interested in other nanotech-related Foolishness? Check out these articles:

Want to keep your eye on nanotech or biotech stocks that might play a winning role in the war on cancer? Consider taking a free, 30-day trial to theMotley Fool Rule Breakersnewsletter, where you'll find great picks (including Affymetrix).

Fool contributor Jack Uldrichis the author of two books on nanotechnology, including Investing in Nanotechnology: Think Small, Win Big. He owns stock in GE, but not in any of the other companies mentioned in this article. The Fool has a strict disclosure policy.


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