The project, led by Sultana Nahar and Anil Pradhan of The Ohio State University's astronomy department, was launched in 2004 and culminated, in part, last month with the presentation of a proof of principle prototype. It uses nanoparticles and X-rays to kill cancer cells without doing as much harm to surrounding tissue.
I asked Nahar and Pradhan to explain their complex technology. Below are excerpts from our interview.
On their technology:
Pradhan: The kind of X-rays we want to use are single energy. We want single-energy X-rays combined with heavy elements that are safe for the body and can be deposited in a tumor through nanotechnology. This means gold nanoparticles can be delivered to the tumor and then bombarded with single-energy X-rays to kill cancer cells.
Nahar: If X-rays along with nanoparticles are used with treatment or therapy, more cells can be destroyed than by pure X-ray radiation. The reason is that the nanoparticles can absorb these high energy X-rays. That is crucial. If we used low-energy X-rays, the body elements would absorb them. But high-energy X-rays can be absorbed mainly by the nanoparticles. That's why they're safer. The reason they are absorbing this high-energy radiation is that the nanoparticles are made of very heavy elements -- gold or platinum. The process of the nanoparticles is to produce electrons. These electrons go to the surrounding cells and break them down.
Pradhan: The idea is that nanoparticles made of heavy elements can be targeted and delivered to the tumor cells and then broken down by single-energy X-rays and therefore kill cancer cells.
On the Ohio Supercomputer Center:
Pradhan: The reason we need supercomputers is that we run very large computer programs. We can only run them on supercomputers. One of the reasons we came to Ohio State is because there is the Ohio Supercomputer Center here. They have the state-of-the-art supercomputers and very large computer programs.
On the next step in their work:
Pradhan: The first step is to develop a functioning prototype that produces single-energy X-rays and can be easily used in medical facilities. Step No. 2 is the design and manufacture of heavy-element nanoparticles, such as gold nanoparticles, that can be effectively delivered to the tumor. Our colleagues in radiation oncology and medical physicists would very much like to use our technology. In fact, they are part of a group for clinical trials, but that is still a few years away.
On using their astronomy background to treat cancer:
Pradhan: Our training is in physics. We are trained in the application of physics into astronomy. Our work is interdisciplinary in that sense. One of our close collaborators branched out into medical physics, Yan Yu from Thomas Jefferson University Medical College. In 2003, he suggested applying this phenomenon in astronomy to medicine. How about being able to target single-energy radiation instead of this broad radiation used in medicine?
What does astronomy have to do with cancer? I have a one-word answer: X-rays.
Photo, top: Anil Pradhan
Photo, bottom: Sultana Nahar