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Chemical Engineers are Beginning to Play a Leading Role in the Treatment of Cancers

Published: Monday, July 08, 2013
Last Updated: Monday, July 08, 2013
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Engineers are helping to combat drug resistance and finding better ways of delivering treatments directly at tumours.

Cancer treatments often include a mix of therapies including chemotherapy, growth inhibitors and radiation therapy.

Success is dependent on many factors, but multi-drug resistance by the cancerous cells and the inability to deliver chemotherapy treatments directly to tumours in high enough concentrations are just some of the obstacles to a successful outcome.

It’s a problem which is attracting the attention of chemical engineers who are looking at new ways to treat cancer. One example is using ‘nanomaterials’ to carry drugs into affected areas in combination with experimental photothermal therapies.

Nanomaterials, such as Nanographene oxide (NGO), are able to penetrate the relatively large gaps (100-600nm) found in tumours to target cancerous cells more effectively.  By changing the size and surface properties of the nanomaterials, chemical engineers are also able to control how the drugs are distributed around the body to help avoid damaging non-cancerous cells.

Drugs carried by nanomaterials have other distinct advantages over ‘small molecule drugs’, which are quickly metabolised and removed from the human body by the kidneys. Standard drugs also have greater side effects caused by the high dosages needed to treat the cancers.

A recent study1 by chemical engineers in Taiwan, using nanomaterials technology combined with other cancer treatments, were able to increase the local drug concentration six fold and suppress tumour development more efficiently. Their results also suggested treatment was less toxic, with reduced side effects, and no multi-drug resistance.

David Brown, chief executive of the Institution of Chemical Engineers (IChemE), said: “Recent analysis by the charity Macmillan Cancer Support projects that in 2020 nearly one in two people (47%) in the UK will get cancer in his or her lifetime.

“These are dramatic statistics and put increasing pressure on the health sector and professionals like chemical engineers to find better treatments and cures for cancer.

“It’s great to see chemical engineers making their own significant contribution in this field in this latest piece of research from Taiwan and other projects we know are underway in many other countries around the world.”

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