Roughly 50 percent of cancer patients can benefit from radiotherapy as part of their treatment, and roughly half of those patients are diagnosed early enough that radiation treatment could even be part of their cure, often in combination with chemotherapy and surgery.

Radiation is an important cancer therapy, but it also has some hefty side effects. The treatment destroys not only tumor cells but also healthy cells, which can cause complications for patients. For this reason, the amount of radiation treatment a patient can receive is limited.

To help improve survival, reduce side effects, and increase the amount of radiotherapy a patient can receive, researchers have been working on developing new ways to enhance radiation therapy.

Photo: Adobe Stock/Kateryna_Kon

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One way they have found to accomplish this goal is by making tumor cells more sensitive to radiation so that less radiation can be used and less of the surrounding tissues are damaged. But how do you go about making tumor cells more sensitive?

Well, recently, researchers have learned that intravenously injecting cancerous tumors with gold nanoparticles (GNPs). The gold nanoparticles act as radiosensitizers, accumulating in the walls of the blood vessels within the tumor, which tend to be leaky because of the tumors’ fast growth. Then the gold particles interact with the X-ray photons used in radiation, producing electrons. The electrons interact with water molecules and produce free radicals, which damage cells and lower their ability to survive.

Photo: Adobe Stock/Maksym Povozniuk

Of course, gold nanoparticles also have the ability to radiosensitize healthy tissue, so it’s important that the people administering this treatment have a firm understanding of the biological systems in and surrounding the tumor. It’s very important that the targeted cells have a high uptake of the GNPs, while healthy tissues should have very limited uptake of the GNPs.

There are three goals within the idea of incorporating GNPs into radiation treatment protocols. The first is to make it easier to kill tumor cells. The second is to target cancer-associated fibroblasts (CAFs), which are recruited by tumor cells to promote metastasis. The third is to protect normal fibroblasts.

Photo: Adobe Stock/Kateryna_Kon

Researchers used 3D tumors grown in the lab to test out their theory about gold nanoparticles. They found that cancer-associated fibroblasts had the highest uptake of GNPs per cell, much higher than normal cells, reducing their activity and slowing tumor growth.

Thanks to this research, gold nanoparticles may eventually be an effective tool in cancer radiation therapy. They could help keep normal tissue intact while killing cancer cells, making for lower radiation doses and happier and healthier patients.

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