Scientists design heat-triggered “grenades” to treat cancer – could it eventually be used to treat asbestos cancers?

Posted: 11th Nov 15 12:06 PM

Scientists from the Nanomedicine Lab in Manchester have designed microscopic “grenades” that release a cancer-killing chemical into tumours.

Their plan is to use tiny bubbles of fat, called liposomes, which carry materials around the body to release the toxic drugs when their temperature is raised enough.


Experts say that the technology, which has been used effectively in animal experiments, was the “holy grail of nanomedicine”.

The “grenades” are intended to avoid any side-effects by ensuring that the drugs released will only target the tumour.

Scientists researching this field are trying to harness the transportation capabilities of the fatty liposomes by getting them to carry the toxic drugs directly to the tumours.

“The difficulty is, how do you release them when they reach their intended target?” says Professor Kostas Kostarelos, from the University of Manchester.

The Manchester based Nanomedicine Lab has designed liposomes that are water-tight at normal body temperatures, but when the temperature is raised to 42C they leak the drugs onto the surrounding tissue.

“The challenge for us is to try to develop liposomes in such a way that they will be very stable at 37C and not leak any cancer drug molecules and then abruptly release them at 42C.”

Warming the tumours

Professor Kostarelos suggests that heat pads could be used to warm cancerous tumours on the body’s surface, such as skin, head or neck cancers.

For cancers inside the body, probes could be used to heat their tissue, and there have also been discussions about potentially being able to use ultrasound to warm tumours.

Could this help those with an asbestos-related lung condition?

Asbestos-related lung cancers and mesothelioma are notoriously difficult to treat or operate on, due to their location within the body and the depth at which the tumours can grow within the lungs.

The new technique is not as invasive as other treatments and could be a much simpler and safer treatment than operations and therapies currently available to those suffering with an asbestos –related lung cancer. As the reports have not specifically identified which cancers the technique could be used for, there is every possibility that the researchers could test it on asbestos-related lung cancer or mesothelioma.

Not a fantasy

In early tests on mice with cancer, there was a greater uptake of drugs in tumours when using the temperature triggered “grenades”, resulting in an “improvement” in survival rates.

Professor Kostarelos said that similar techniques were currently being trialled in patients, and that this “is not a fantasy”.

Professor Charles Swanton, the chairman of the conference where this information was discussed, said that targeted liposomes were a “holy grail of nanomedicine”.

He added: “These studies demonstrate for the first time how they can be built to include temperature control, which could open up a range of new treatment avenues.

“This is still early work, but these liposomes could be an effective way of targeting treatment towards cancer cells while leaving healthy cells unharmed.”

Further reading

Prof. Kostas Kostarelos 

What is mesothelioma?

What is asbestos?

Asbestos is being missed as a cause for UK’s lung cancer