Nanotechnology in Cancer

Nanotechnology offers the unprecedented and paradigm-changing opportunity to study and interact with normal and cancer cells in real time, at the molecular and cellular scales, and during the earliest stages of the cancer process. Through the concerted development of nanoscale devices or devices with nanoscale materials and components, the NCI Alliance for Nanotechnology in Cancer will facilitate their integration within the existing cancer research infrastructure. The Alliance will bring enabling technologies for:

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  • Imaging agents and diagnostics that will allow clinicians to detect cancer in its earliest stages
  • Systems that will provide real-time assessments of therapeutic and surgical efficacy for accelerating clinical translation
  • Multifunctional, targeted devices capable of bypassing biological barriers to deliver multiple therapeutic agents directly to cancer cells and those tissues in the microenvironment that play a critical role in the growth and metastasis of cancer
  • Agents that can monitor predictive molecular changes and prevent precancerous cells from becoming malignant
  • Novel methods to manage the symptoms of cancer that adversely impact quality of life
  • Research tools that will enable rapid identification of new targets for clinical development and predict drug resistance

Why Nanotechnology in Cancer?
Nanoscale devices are somewhere from one hundred to ten thousand times smaller than human cells. They are similar in size to large biological molecules ("biomolecules") such as enzymes and receptors. As an example, hemoglobin, the molecule that carries oxygen in red blood cells, is approximately 5 nanometers in diameter. Nanoscale devices smaller than 50 nanometers can easily enter most cells, while those smaller than 20 nanometers can move out of blood vessels as they circulate through the body.

Because of their small size, nanoscale devices can readily interact with biomolecules on both the surface of cells and inside of cells. By gaining access to so many areas of the body, they have the potential to detect disease and deliver treatment in ways unimagined before now. And since biological processes, including events that lead to cancer, occur at the nanoscale at and inside cells, nanotechnology offers a wealth of tools that are providing cancer researchers with new and innovative ways to diagnose and treat cancer.


Work is currently being done to find ways to safely move these new research tools into clinical practice. Today, cancer-related nanotechnology is proceeding on two main fronts: laboratory-based diagnostics and in vivo diagnostics and therapeutics.
Nanotechnology and Diagnostics

Nanodevices can provide rapid and sensitive detection of cancer-related molecules by enabling scientists to detect molecular changes even when they occur only in a small percentage of cells.

Nanotechnology and Cancer Therapy

Nanoscale devices have the potential to radically change cancer therapy for the better and to dramatically increase the number of highly effective therapeutic agents. Nanoscale constructs can serve as customizable, targeted drug delivery vehicles capable of ferrying large doses of chemotherapeutic agents or therapeutic genes into malignant cells while sparing healthy cells, greatly reducing or eliminating the often unpalatable side effects that accompany many current cancer therapies.


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