Thursday, June 08, 2006

Electricians, Nanoparticles, And Dancing

We’ve had electricians buzzing around here for the last couple of days. They’ve been amazing. Because we’re building a garage this summer (also known as a power tool recreation area), we needed to beef up our electrical system. We had to reroute the power where it comes into the house, because if you do any upgrading the city likes you to commit to a total overhaul. We put in a new meter with a main circuit shutoff up at the front of the house (the old one was in the back, with open wires that looped all the way around the building—scary and messy), and then ran a giant cable through the attic to a new circuit panel in the basement. By putting in a bigger panel, we will have room to expand the service into the garage, thus providing power to lots of lovely tools. Power tools. My eyes are glowing even as I type this.

This electrical upgrade went so smoothly. It was fun watching the experts at work. We had already replaced the panel once ourselves, about fifteen years ago. (We obviously did not upgrade enough, or we wouldn’t have had to repeat the process.) At the time, poverty made us brave, so my husband did most of the work himself, with a little consulting from an electrician we were acquainted with back then. The projects then and the project now were night and day. Ours took days, and we had to deal with the power being down for long stretches, some trial and error, a lot of frustrations, some damage to other systems on the side (plaster specifically), and an adequate, but not outstanding result. Theirs flowed like a waltz, intricate and precise. They were so fast, and so competent, and the results are so clean and orderly. They didn’t waste any effort, or damage any other parts of the house. Everything was purposeful and directed toward a specific goal. There was nothing random about how they did their job, and it made them an object lesson in efficiency. Our power was off for a sum total of two hours. Two hours--that’s efficiency for you.

So anyway, I started reading this article that I couldn’t help relating to the difference between our electrical fumblings and the productivity of the experts that we’ve witnessed over the last couple of days. It’s on a completely different subject, medical nanotech applications, but the lessons of efficiency hold, and the comparison to an intricate dance. In a report titled “Magnetic Field Acts as 'Remote Control' to Deliver Nanomedicine", reports on advances in efficiency in the fight against cancer (with potential applications for neurological and cardiac diseases as well), being developed at the University of Buffalo. It looks at nanoparticles as a delivery method for cancer fighting medicine, but with some interesting twists. As with any complicated dance, there are several steps involved.

The first is the development of the cancer treatment, in this case, photodynamic therapy. According to, Paras Prasad, Ph.D., is the executive director of UB's Institute for Lasers, Photonics and Biophotonics, SUNY Distinguished Professor in the Department of Chemistry in the UB College of Arts and Sciences:

According to Prasad, photodynamic therapy is one of the most promising treatments for cancer; it's also being investigated as a treatment method for cardiovascular, dermatological and ophthalmic diseases.

PDT exploits the propensity of tumors to retain higher concentrations of photosensitive drugs than normal tissues. When exposed to laser light, these drugs generate toxic molecules that destroy the cancer cells.

Interesting, huh? The drug makes toxins when lasered, and tumors hold onto the drug more than normal tissue, so the toxins get concentrated in the tumors when the laser is applied, thus sparing the normal tissue to a certain degree. Cool. The photosensitive drug is not totally limited to the cancerous tissue, though, which does result in some side effects, the main one being that the patient has a strong sensitivity to light for four to six weeks after treatment, from the drug accumulating in the skin. The article doesn't go into how that manifests, but I would assume we're at least talking about a high risk of sunburn. No doubt there is damage to non-cancerous tissue from the toxins released by the photosensitive drugs when the skin, and probably the eyes, are exposed to light. Finding a way to keep the drug from wandering to parts hither and yon would be a good thing.

This leads to steps two and three in the medical dance. Two is how to get the drug to the tumor in very small quantities, just sufficient to damage the cancer and not the surrounding tissue. Three is how to get the drug to head for and stay in the target area, and not wander off into healthy tissue, so the side effects can be minimal. Step two uses our old friends, nanoparticles. For this application the University of Buffalo team created nanocarriers, developed from polymer micelles (whatever they are), tiny receptacles designed to carry the medicine, and hold onto it well during transport. Step three is where the twist comes in. They added iron oxide nanoparticles inside the nanocarriers. So what, you say? This is where it gets neat. They discovered that if they apply a magnetic field to these iron oxide enhanced nanocarriers, they can direct them where they want them to go:

In the experiments, nanocarriers were shown to be efficiently taken up by cultured tumor cells in the area exposed to the magnetic field, as demonstrated by confocal microscopy.

While the team has demonstrated this concept with PDT drugs, Prasad said the technique would be useful in delivering gene therapy, chemotherapy or practically any kind of pharmaceutical treatment into cells.

"Because the nanocarriers proved to be significantly stable and because they retained the PDT drugs, we are optimistic that they will be able to deliver a wide range of therapies to tumors or other disease sites in the body without any significant loss in the circulatory system or in normal tissues," said Prasad.

They now move on to step four in this medical Waltz--in vivo testing, which is a fancy way of saying they're going live. Preliminary studies in animals indicate that the magnetic fields work in the body the same way as in the test tube, with the magnetic fields causing the medicine to accumulate at the tumor site. That's way exciting if you ask me. I've seen people suffering the effects of chemotherapy before, and it's really incredibly hard what some cancer patients go through. The more they develop ways to limit the effects of various drugs to just the targeted tissue, the better. Advances like these are such a blessing to the people who are already dealing with the trauma of life-threatening illness, and the pain and exhaustion that come with them. What a great thing for doctors to be able to limit the trauma of the treatment itself.

I just find it amazing all the things that science is discovering as they build more and more on existing knowledge. The dance gets more intricate and the dancers get more adept. The treatment they're developing at UB is so like the work that our electricians did this week, efficient, precise, and clean, without wasted effort, or damage to other systems. They're combining the knowledge of photodynamic drug therapy, nanoparticles, and magnetic field theory, and making the whole system work. There's more work to be done, I grant you, and it's not a two day job, like our electricians pulled off, but considering what they're doing, I think they deserve a little more time--at least a couple weeks.