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From Tiny Technology to a Big Leap in Care

Scientists are using nanotechnology to analyze tumors and personalize treatment
Microscope image of therapeutic peptide glioblastoma

Nanotechnology involves the use of materials and devices at the tiniest scale - typically in the range of 1 to 100 nanometers. To put this into perspective, a human hair is about 80,000 nanometers wide. Nanotechnology is a new frontier in cancer, offering new ways to approach diagnosis and treatment. 

Nanotechnology has enabled the development of liquid biopsies, a noninvasive method of tumor profiling. Through a simple blood draw, scientists can analyze circulating tumor cells and exosomes in the bloodstream, providing insights into tumor genetics and disease progression. This approach allows for a deeper understanding of the characteristics of cancerous growths, leading to a more precise diagnosis and personalized treatment. Traditionally, tumors are profiled by biopsy, which can be time-consuming and invasive.

Stefan Bossmann, PhD, a member of The University of Kansas Cancer Center’s Drug Discovery, Delivery and Experimental Therapeutics research program and chair of the Department of Cancer Biology, is a renowned nanotechnology expert. 

“Using nanotechnology-based liquid biopsies, we may see enzymes circulating in the blood. These enzymes provide the first clues to cancer development,” Dr. Bossmann says. “Early detection means more treatment options and higher survival rates.”

Finding Clues to a Patient’s Response

Taking this groundbreaking research from the lab to the clinic, Dr. Bossmann collaborates with oncologists to test these liquid biopsy devices in real-world, clinical situations. His partners, Priyanka Sharma, MD, professor in the Department of Internal Medicine at the University of Kansas School of Medicine and co-leader of the cancer center’s Drug Discovery, Delivery and Experimental Therapeutics research program, and Shane Stecklein, MD, PhD, assistant professor in the departments of Radiation Oncology, Pathology and Laboratory Medicine, and Cancer Biology, are experts in triple-negative breast cancer. 

Triple-negative breast cancer accounts for 10%–15% of all breast cancer cases. It tends to spread more rapidly than other breast cancers and is more likely to recur. Triple-negative breast cancer lacks three key receptors targeted in the treatment of other breast cancer subtypes: estrogen receptor, progesterone receptor and human epidermal growth factor receptor 2 (HER2). Because of this, chemotherapy is the primary treatment for this type of cancer. In most cases of early-stage triple-negative breast cancer, chemotherapy is given before surgery. However, even with chemotherapy, the cancer comes back for about 30% of patients. It’s crucial to develop biomarkers that can predict how well a patient will respond to specific treatments and their chances of being cured. This is important for improving the outcomes for people with triple-negative breast cancer.

This non-invasive technology may be able to predict response even before beginning treatment, and this could allow us to tailor the type and intensity of treatment based on each patient’s risk. Shane Stecklein, MD, PhD

More Personalized Care

The team tested the nano-biosensor technology on samples from Dr. Sharma's triple-negative breast cancer registry and Dr. Sharma’s landmark trial, the NeoSTOP study. Over 1,000 patients are in the triple-negative registry.

“Using these novel nano-biosensors, we can quantify the activity of enzymes in the blood. Fractions of certain enzymes might tell us something about the tumor’s biology and how the cancer would respond to treatment,” Dr. Sharma says.

The team looked at eight enzymes to see if any of them could predict patient outcomes. One panel, containing three enzyme biomarkers, led to the classification of three distinct patient groups, each responding uniquely to chemotherapy treatment given before surgery. Response to chemotherapy treatment plays a pivotal role in gauging the likelihood of cancer recurrence and charting the course of treatment.

“How an individual’s cancer responds to treatment gives us powerful insight into their likelihood of long-term cure with standard treatment,” Dr. Stecklein says. “This noninvasive technology may be able to predict response even before beginning treatment, and this could allow us to tailor the type and intensity of treatment based on each patient’s risk.”

Targeting Other Cancers

Next, the team is validating the enzyme panel in another clinical trial sample set. The team is also looking at using the liquid biopsy test for other disease types, including lung cancer and pancreatic cancer. 

"Triple-negative breast cancer is a notoriously complex disease to treat,” Dr. Sharma says. “We are hopeful that our findings may lead to new ways to determine treatment response and individualize treatment.”

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