Despite recent advances in the fight against cancer, scientific research continues on several fronts. Current studies in the field of nanomedicine are proving very promising. Professor Valentina Cauda, from the Politecnico di Torino, has received funding from the European Research Council (ERC) for a pioneering project in this field, designed to develop therapies to target cancer cells without affecting the surrounding tissue.
What is your project about?
In my lab we design nanoparticles – known as TrojaNanoHorses (TNH) – which are engineered to be biomimetic, meaning that they can be injected into the bloodstream without causing immune reactions within the receiving body, that is, the tumour. The idea is that of the Greek myth of the Trojan Horse, which is not recognized as dangerous, hence is taken inside the city. Just like the horse, once inside the tumour cell, the nanoparticles give rise to mechanisms that can destroy it. In addition to this therapeutic effect, we have also designed the nanoparticles as diagnostic tools. In fact, when stimulated with ultraviolet lighting techniques, they will allow a better vision of the area affected by the tumour.
Currently there are many studies on this type of targeted treatment. What is the specificity of the nanoparticles you work with?
There are numerous and very valid studies carried out in recent years in the field of nanomaterials, materials of the dimensions of one billionth of a meter. Many of these involve the use of nanodrugs that are incorporated in the particle to be transported to the tumour cell. The difference of this project is that we do not foresee the use of chemotherapeutical substances associated with the nanoparticle. This should reduce the risks linked to the administration of these substances, in particular their unintentional release during the journey, which can damage other healthy tissues and organs. The therapeutic effect is due to a mechanism by which the nanoparticle disintegrates inside the tumour cell, releasing ions and radicals that damage it. Often, one hears of free radicals that are created by sunlight exposure and cause the ageing of cells. The procedure is very similar but, in this case, the release of radicals is extremely localized, and only occurs within the cancer cell.
Could this also be a valuable treatment for breast cancer?
The key to reaching the tumour is given by the molecules placed on the surface of the nanoparticle, which give the exact "address" to hit the target tumour cells. It will therefore be necessary to find the specific molecules to target breast cancer, in cooperation with clinicians and biologists with experience treating this type of tumour. It is essential, in fact, to find the peptide or antibody that binds to a specific receptor on the cancer cell, the selectivity otherwise fails and you can end hitting other cells. In general, it will be possible to extend these considerations to any type of cancer.
How will your project develop?
For the moment, the project is focused on the development of the nanoparticle in the lab. In the future, it will also cover the mechanisms of treatment and diagnosis on the tumour. During the next five years we will do studies on cultures of cancer cells in the lab and, if the data will be comforting, we can move on to clinical trials on patients, probably not before the next ten years.
How did you decide to specialise in nanomedicine?
Nanotechnologies have opened new horizons in various fields, as demonstrated by the recent Nobel Prize for chemistry about molecular machines. After my PhD, I started working with various groups that were working on nanoparticles for controlled drug delivery. Nanomedicine is an exciting interdisciplinary field, and without materials science, chemistry and physics, therapies may not be developed in an innovative and effective way. In Italy we are rather advanced in this field. In my group, eleven specialists from different disciplines work with me. They are all Italian, but we are trying to open up internationally thanks to an ERC initiative that will allow us to host researchers from around the world visiting an ERC laboratory.
Valentina Cauda is a chemical engineer. After obtaining her PhD in materials sciences in Italy, she worked at the University of Munich collaborating with various groups specialising in biomedical research. She decided to return to Turin initially at the Italian Institute of Technology and now, with ERC funding for her project, at the Politecnico di Torino, where she leads a research team.
Prof. Valentina Cauda and her team at Politecnico di Torino