Physicists at the University of Texas at Arlington might have unlocked another key to defeating cancerous tumors deep within the body. How it’s done is kind of like flipping on millions of microscopic light bulbs.
UTA announced this week that the research, led by physics professor Wei Chen and published this month in the Journal of Biomedical Nanotechnology, shows that using microwaves to activate photosensitive nanoparticles produces tissue-heating effects that lead to cell death in solid tumors.
“Our new method using microwaves can propagate through all types of tissues and target deeply situated tumors,” said Chen, lead author of the study.
Photodynamic therapy kills cancer cells when a nanoparticle introduced into tumor tissue generates something called singlet oxygen after being exposed to light. Singlet oxygen irreversibly damages cell mitochondria and eventually causes cell death.
“Up to now, photodynamic therapy, which depends on visible, ultraviolet or near infrared light, was considered effective for skin cancers or cancers close to the skin surface,” Chen said. “Our new concept combining microwaves with photodynamic therapy opens up new avenues for targeting deeper tumors and has already proven effective in rapidly and safely reducing tumor size.”
In prior studies, the researchers had identified a new type of nanoparticle — copper-cysteamine, or Cu-Cy — that could be activated by X-rays to produce singlet oxygen and slow the growth of tumors. But X-ray radiation carries significant risks to patients and can harm healthy tissue.
In the new lab study, the team demonstrated that the Cu-Cy can also be activated by microwaves, which can be directed at the tumor itself without harming surrounding tissue.
“Our new microwave-induced photodynamic therapy offers numerous advantages, the most significant of which is increased safety,” Chen said. “Our nanoparticle Cu-Cy also demonstrates very low toxicity, is easy to make and inexpensive and also emits intense luminescence, which means it can also be used as an imaging agent.”
Alex Weiss, chairman of the UTA physics department, said the research is also important in the context of UTA’s increasing focus on health and the human condition as part of its 2020 strategic plan.
“Dr. Chen’s research into nanoparticle activation has led to important discoveries that could potentially transform cancer treatment,” Weiss said. “This new paper on the possibilities of microwave activation demonstrates yet again how Dr. Chen’s search for new modalities of therapy could play a key role in finding safe, viable and inexpensive treatments for cancer.”
Chen came to UTA in 2006 following an international career in the United States, Canada, Sweden and China. He received his doctorate in chemistry from Peking University in Beijing.
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