A nanotechnology therapy that targets cancer with a “stealth smart bomb” will begin patient trials next year in the first clinical test of a pioneering approach to medicine.

The nanoparticle, which targets tumor cells while evading the body’s immune system, promises to deliver larger and more effective doses of drugs to cancers, while simultaneously sparing patients many of the distressing side-effects of chemotherapy.

Animal studies have indicated that the treatment can shrink tumors “essentially to zero”, while being better tolerated than conventional cancer treatments. Final toxicology studies are about to begin.

A trial involving about 25 cancer patients is scheduled to start within a year. If successful,it could lead to a licensed drug within five years.

Although the therapy was originally designed for prostate cancer, it is expected to be effective against other solid tumors, such as forms of breast, lung and brain cancer. Patients with some of these cancers, as well as prostate cancer, may be included in the first trial.

The technology, developed by BIND Biosciences, a company based in Cambridge, Massachusetts, should also be suitable for delivering drugs for treating other conditions, as well as for the chemotherapy agents that it has been set up to carry.

“This should be the first targeted nanoparticle delivering a chemotherapeutic to enter clinical trials,” Jeff Hrkach, the company’s vice-president of pharmaceutical sciences, said. “We’re then looking to develop this as a broad platform that could also be used to treat cardiovascular disease, inflammation, even infectious disease.”

The nanoparticle, known as BIND 014, is designed to solve three of the major challenges in drug delivery: how to ensure therapeutic molecules get to the right place in the body, how to release them slowly over several days, and how to keep the body’s immune system from recognizing them as foreign and destroying them.

It does this by packing drugs inside a “special delivery parcel” developed by Robert Langer, of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and Omid Farokhzad, of Harvard University, who founded BIND Biosciences.

This nanoparticle’s diameter is 1,000 times smaller than that of a human hair, measuring about 100 nanometers — or one ten-millionth of a meter — across. It has four elements, the first of which is its payload, a common chemotherapy drug called docetaxel or Taxotere.

The docetaxel molecules are enclosed in a matrix made of a biodegradable polymer known as polylactic acid, which breaks down slowly over several days so that the drug is released gradually. This means that a single injection of nanoparticles can have a long-lasting effect.

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