Nanoneedles might reduce cost of fighting late-stage cancer

Australian researchers are hoping their tiny “nanoneedles” will improve a cutting-edge cancer treatment.

CAR-T cell therapy is a promising way to treat some advanced cancers like leukemia and lymphoma. It involves removing white blood cells (or T-cells) from a patient and genetically modifying them to attack cancer cells.

“The problem with the CAR-T therapy is that they’re using a virus to deliver the DNA into the cell,” says Dr Roey Elnathan, a researcher at Deakin University’s school of medicine.

“This makes CAR-T therapy really, really expensive, because all the re-engineering of the cells is done outside of the body. And because they’re using a viral vector, they need to do so many biosafety checks to make sure that once they’ve got the DNA into the cells, there is no virus left over.”

Viral-vector based CAR-T therapy can cost upwards of $500,000 per patient.

“It also takes a long time using the virus to basically program the CAR-T cells,” says Elnathan.

Elnathan’s team has developed an alternative: tiny DNA-delivering nanotubes, or “nanoneedles”.

“What we are doing is much more rapid, and it’s also a higher throughput,” he says.

“On the platform, you basically deliver, simultaneously, the DNA into thousands and thousands of cells in a very short time.”

The nanoneedles are a few nanometres in size – or 100,000 times smaller than the width of a human hair.

Elnathan says they have two different nanoneedle technologies: the first generation is made from silicon, and can deliver DNA mechanically into patients’ cells.

Nanoneedles and cells
The second-generation nanoneedles. Credit: Deakin University

The second generation technology is similar, but the silicon nanoneedles are coated with gold.

“By coating the silicon with gold, basically what we have done we transform each of the nanoneedles into a nanoelectrode,” he says.

“Once the cells are in contact with the platform, that platform now can basically electrify the cells with very, very small voltages. As a result of that, we create kind of a porosity within the outer membrane of the cells. And because of that, now, you actually can deliver any molecule into the cell – for example, DNA, or antibodies.”

The researchers have published two recent papers on their nanoneedles.

“The non-viral process would reduce the complexities and eliminate the safety issues associated with viral vectors. And the nanotechnology has the potential to be conducted entirely within the hospital,” says Professor Nicolas Voelcker, a researcher at Monash University.

The team is now testing their therapy in mice, and Elnathan says it will “take some time” for the treatment to get to clinical trials.

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