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Physicists blast cancer with nanobubbles

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In laboratory studies, a team led by physicist Dmitri Lapotko (above) found they could blast right through the deposits that block arteries. Gold nanoparticles were sprayed on the plaque (from left) and illuminated with a laser from above, creating nanobubbles. In tests on cancer cells, they found they could tune the lasers to create either small, bright bubbles that were visible but harmless or large bubbles that burst the cells. (Credit: Jeff Fitlow/Rice University)

RICE (US)—Using lasers and nanoparticles, scientists have discovered a new technique for singling out individual diseased cells and destroying them with tiny explosions.

The scientists used lasers to make “nanobubbles” by zapping gold nanoparticles inside cells. In tests on cancer cells, they found they could tune the lasers to create either small, bright bubbles that were visible but harmless or large bubbles that burst the cells.

“Single-cell targeting is one of the most touted advantages of nanomedicine, and our approach delivers on that promise with a localized effect inside an individual cell,” says Rice University physicist Dmitri Lapotko, the project’s lead researcher. “The idea is to spot and treat unhealthy cells early, before a disease progresses to the point of making people extremely ill.”

The research is available online in the journal Nanotechnology.

Nanobubbles are created when gold nanoparticles are struck by short laser pulses. The short-lived bubbles are very bright and can be made smaller or larger by varying the power of the laser. Because they are visible under a microscope, nanobubbles can be used to either diagnose sick cells or to track the explosions that are destroying them.

Rapidly expanding nanobubbles blast through arterial plaque. With the backlighting turned off, each bubble shows up as a brilliant flash. (Courtesy: Rice University)

In laboratory studies published last year, Lapotko and colleagues at the Laboratory for Laser Cytotechnologies at the A.V. Lykov Heat and Mass Transfer Institute in Minsk, Belarus, applied nanobubbles to arterial plaque. They found that they could blast right through the deposits that block arteries.

“The bubbles work like a jackhammer,” Lapotko explains.

In the current study, Lapotko and Rice colleague Jason Hafner, associate professor of physics and astronomy and of chemistry, tested the approach on leukemia cells and cells from head and neck cancers. They attached antibodies to the nanoparticles so they would target only the cancer cells, and they found the technique was effective at locating and killing the cancer cells.

Lapotko says the nanobubble technology could be used for “theranostics,” a single process that combines diagnosis and therapy. In addition, because the cell-bursting nanobubbles also show up on microscopes in real time, Lapotko says the technique can be use for post-therapeutic assessment, or what physicians often refer to as “guidance.”

Hafner notes that the “mechanical and optical properties of the bubbles offer unique advantages in localizing the biomedical applications to the individual cell level, or perhaps even to work within cells.”

Coauthors of the Nanotechnology paper include researchers from the University of Texas and Lykov Institute. The research was supported by the National Institutes of Health and the Institute of International Education’s Scholar Rescue Fund.

Rice University news: www.media.rice.edu/media

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