Nanotechnology, which is the science of engineering and controlling matter at the molecular scale, is no stranger to cancer treatment.  In fact, nanotechnology and the cancer research field began to commingle as far back as 40 years ago, but only recently has the relationship seen an explosion of true progress and information.

For physicians and scientists alike, advances in this field have meant a remarkable shift in how we might one day treat cancer. According to Brigham and Women’s Omid Farokhzad, MD, traditional cancer treatments, such as chemotherapy, radiation, and surgery, could soon be joined—or entirely replaced—by the promising field of nanotechnology.

At the beginning of 2000, roughly 300 or so papers were published about nanoparticles. In 2015 there were 15,000. The impact on cancer treatment is real.

It is because of this exponential growth that nanotechnology and cancer treatment was selected as a Disruptive Dozen finalist at the recent Partners World Medical Innovation Forum. This list of 12 innovations was created to identify the disruptive technologies that our leading faculty feel will have the greatest impact on cancer treatment over the next decade. As an expert in oncology, Farokhzad was selected to present on the potential impact of nanotechnology at the Forum.

Recent innovations in nanotechnology and cancer treatment have centered on a shift from using microscopic particles to blanket a patient’s body with treatment (e.g., Doxil), to more targeted, homing molecules that can treat a patient’s condition precisely where the cancer occurs (e.g., Abraxane). “We’re shifting to targeted therapies, personalized therapies,” Farokhzad said.

The promising next step for nanotechnology, according to Farokhzad, involves manipulating a virus into delivering modified genes into cancer cells. Because a virus may naturally trigger the body's immune response, therapy delivered in this manner could be problematic. However, with nanotechnology added into the mix, a virus could be effectively “hidden” from the immune system, and be free to deliver its load of cancer-fighting treatment unabated.

“We’re at the point now where I can say it’d be shocking if nanotechnology isn’t responsible for a seismic shift in oncology 20 years down the line,” Farokhzad said. “It could be a pillar to replace traditional treatment, but also enhance existing approaches, so that we’re delivering chemotherapy more effectively, or radiating more effectively, and so on.”

This post is one of several that will appear in Connect with Partners on the Disruptive Dozen announced at the Partners World Medical Innovation Forum. Subscribe to the Connect with Partners newsletter below to ensure you don’t miss future coverage of other Disruptive Dozen examples.