New self-assembling nanoparticle makes MRIs more effective

Scientists from Imperial College London have developed a nanoparticle that activates and expands when it comes into contact with cancer cells, making MRIs more effective.

The nanoparticle has a protein coating which seeks out signals given off by cancerous tumours. When it comes into contact with cancer cells, this strips off its protein coating, causing the nanoparticle to assemble, Transformers-style, into a new and bigger shape that makes the cancerous cells it’s interacting with more visible. This should mean that in future it’s easier to spot smaller tumours more quickly, which in turn should mean earlier treatment and better survival rates.

In their new study, published in the journal Angewandte Chemie, Professor Nicholas Long and his team say the use of their nanoparticle resulted in a clearer image of tumours than existing techniques.

Their biggest challenge was making sure the nanoparticle was the right size. It started at just 100 nanometres and in lab tests, expanded to 800 nanometres over four hours. This meant that it was visible enough to be effective without causing harm. However, so far it has only been trialled in tests on mice, and needs to be fine-tuned before human trials can start. If the nanoparticle is too small it will simply be secreted by the body, too large and it could cause irritation and mar the results.

The researchers plan to experiment further with the size, trying to make it as small as possible while still showing up on images, and perhaps even making it luminescent, so it glows when it comes into contact with cancer cells. They hope to move on to testing the nanoparticle on people in the next 3-5 years.

Image via Liz West’s Flickr.

Diane Shipley