Two separate research efforts in China and the U.S. are exploring a rather dramatic use of nanotechnology to deliver drugs to their targets. Think of a microscopic explosion and that's where they're essentially going with this.
Let's start with China. As Nanowerk reports, state researcher and Wuhan University chemistry professor Xian-Zheng Zhang is leading an effort to develop a nanoscale biodegradable microcapsule drug delivery system that would keep the drug sealed while in the blood and normal tissues. Once it reaches its target, however, the cancerous environment would trigger a kind of acidic stimuli formulated into the drug that would cause it to explosively release its treatment. Details are published in the journal Advanced Functional Materials.
On a much broader scale, MIT's Technology Review reports on two University of Rochester researchers--Vitaly Chaban and Oleg Prezhdo--who thought of a similar idea with carbon nanotubes. (We can't pass up telling you the blog item headline, either: "Exploding Carbon Nanotubes Could Act as Drug Grenades.")
The researchers, based in upstate New York, propose filling up carbon nanotubes with both drug and water molecules and then sealing them with a secure cap, and injecting the nanotubes into the body at or near the cells they are intended to reach. At that point, an infrared laser generates heat, boils the water in the nanotubes and then they burst, pushing the drug and water molecules into the cell.
Both concepts have promise, and potentially address a struggle that companies and scientists alike have faced in trying to develop nanotech delivery systems that don't void their drug payloads before they reach the target. Premature delivery can reduce a drug's effectiveness, after all. But so much more research is needed here. A key issue to consider: Even a microscopic explosion could cause collateral damage. And so scientists will have to determine if their concepts are effective at reaching their targets but also that they don't cause undue damage to surrounding healthy tissue.