3D medical image of male figure with brain
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When cancer spreads to the brain, forming secondary tumors known as brain metastases, it typically originates from primary solid tumors such as those found in breast, lung, and colon cancer. This condition is often linked with a grim outlook for patients. One of the challenges of treating metastases that have breached the brain is the difficulty of getting drugs past the blood-brain barrier. However, scientists at the Sylvester Comprehensive Cancer Center, University of Miami Miller School of Medicine, report a breakthrough: they have created a nanoparticle capable of breaching this barrier.

The findings from the Sylvester Comprehensive Cancer Center, University of Miami Miller School of Medicine researchers are published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

By loading the particle with two prodrugs that target mitochondria the researchers demonstrated that their method could shrink breast and brain tumors in preclinical studies. The team’s nanoparticle may one day be used to treat the metastases with the added benefit of treating the primary tumor at the same time.

“I always say nanomedicine is the future, but of course we have already been in that future,” said Shanta Dhar, PhD, an associate professor of biochemistry and molecular biology and assistant director of technology and innovation at Sylvester, who led the study. “Nanomedicine is definitely also the future for cancer therapeutics.”

The new method uses a nanoparticle made of a biodegradable polymer, previously developed by Dhar’s team, coupled with two drugs also developed in her lab that take aim at cancer’s energy sources. Because cancer cells often have a different form of metabolism than healthy cells, stifling their metabolism can be an effective way to kill tumors without harming other tissues.

One of these drugs is a modified version of a classic chemotherapy drug, cisplatin, which kills cancer cells by damaging DNA in rapidly growing cells. Tumor cells can repair their DNA, sometimes leading to cisplatin resistance. Dhar’s team modified the drug to shift its target from nuclear DNA, the DNA that makes up our chromosomes and genome, to mitochondrial DNA.

Because cancer cells can switch between different energy sources to sustain their growth and proliferation, the researchers combined their modified cisplatin, which they call Platin-M and attacks the energy-generating process known as oxidative phosphorylation, with another drug they developed, Mito-DCA, that specifically targets a mitochondrial protein known as a kinase and inhibits glycolysis, a different kind of energy generation.

Dhar said it was a long route to develop a nanoparticle that can access the brain. She has been working on nanoparticles for her whole independent career, and in a previous project studying different forms of polymers, the researchers noticed that a small fraction of some of these nanoparticles reached the brain in preclinical studies. By honing those polymers further, Dhar’s team developed a nanoparticle that can cross both the blood-brain barrier and the outer membrane of mitochondria.

“There have been a lot of ups and downs to figuring this out, and we’re still working to understand the mechanism by which these particles cross the blood-brain barrier,” Dhar added.

The team then tested the specialized drug-loaded nanoparticle in preclinical studies and found that they work to shrink both breast tumors and breast cancer cells that were seeded in the brain to form tumors there. The nanoparticle-drug combination also appeared to be nontoxic and significantly extended survival in lab studies.

In the future, the researchers plan to test their technique in laboratory settings using models that better replicate human brain metastases, possibly even using patient-derived cancer cells. Additionally, the researchers want to test the drug in laboratory models of glioblastoma.

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