Why the boom in cancer nanotechnology?

In the last decade, a ton of work has been done in cancer nanotechnology, with over 2500 articles published since the 80s, entire conferences devoted to the topic, and products already launched, such as the nanoparticle paclitaxel drug Abraxane. Of the 74 nanoparticle clinical trials currently on record in the US, 65 of them are in cancer. The idea of using nanoparticles to selectively detect and kill cancer cells is enticing because it promises to improve the delivery and specificity of cancer therapy. One of the major problems with current cancer therapy is that it’s not specific enough; healthy cells are killed or harmed along with cancerous ones, causing harsh side effects such as anemia. Ironically, there’s also a fair amount of research on whether nanotechnology in other contexts might cause cancer, but that’s another story.

The figure below plots the number of papers found on PubMed published in cancer nanotechnology in the last 15 years, showing a steady increase in the amount of research. (The 2009 numbers are counted to date and underestimate the total number of papers that will be published this year.)

I think it’s fantastic that nanotech is being applied to cancer, but all this activity made me wonder why medical nanotechnology development has concentrated on cancer when there are other diseases that could also benefit from more selective therapies. How much of the research boom has been due to higher NIH funding for cancer compared with other disease areas? How much is attributable to specific funding programs aimed at cancer nanotechnologythat emerged since the founding of the Alliance for Nanotechnology in Cancer in 2004? Or maybe the boom isn’t related solely to funding—maybe the state of scientific knowledge about cancer was simply ready for the technology, more so than in other areas. Maybe research was fueled in part by the momentum of the idea or a feeling of safety in following the herd. From the graph above, the interest in cancer nanomedicine seems to have steadily increased, with no notable spikes in any particular year.

Whatever the reason for the upsurge in activity, it remains to be seen how cancer nanotechnology will perform over the next few years. Abraxane seems to be doing well so far–successes in cancer nanotechnology could lead to nanomedicine in other disease areas.

For more on nanoparticles in cancer:

  • Videos from the 2008 Koch Institute Nanotechnology and Cancer Symposium

  • National Cancer Institute’s Alliance for Nanotechnology in Cancer

  • PBS NOVA profile of Naomi Halas’s work on cancer nanotechnology