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The side effects of chemotherapy could be largely wiped out by a so-called "magic bullet" nanotechnology system being researched in Dubai, according to an associate professor at Dubai Pharmacy College.
Dr Aliasgar Shahiwala is looking into using nano-particles that would release chemotherapy drugs only on contact with cancerous cells. The amount of treatment needed to eliminate tumours could be reduced by 95 per cent should the research prove successful, he said.
"When you take normal medicine it diffuses throughout the body," said Dr Shahiwala. "It doesn't differentiate between the normal cell and the diseased cell. Using nanotechnology, you are specifically targeting the drugs to the diseased organs. Because all of the drug is targeted in this way, you also require a smaller dose. That is why nano-particles are called 'magic bullets'."
There is likely to be plenty of demand should the treatment be approved. Cancer cases are rising by as much as five per cent a year on a global basis, said Dr Falah al Khatib, a consultant clinic oncologist at the Gulf International Cancer Centre in Abu Dhabi.
The market for oncology drugs will be worth US$80 billion (Dh294bn) in global sales by 2012, according to the research house IMS.
However, the UK-based technology adviser PA Consulting has warned that large pharmaceutical companies have been slow to catch on to nanomedicines, a market expected to be worth a staggering US$220bn by 2015.
"Companies are starting to focus their efforts in this direction," Dr Shahiwala said. "Instead of finding new drugs they are directing their research in how they can use better their existing drugs."
Typical cancer treatment side effects such as hair loss, nausea and vomiting would be almost completely eliminated by the new technology, Dr Shahiwala said.
"Chemotherapy is a very traumatic experience," he said. "By using nanotechnology-based treatments, these side effects will be reduced by 90 per cent at least."
The research is being conducted in tandem with facilities around the world, which are also investigating the possibility that chemotherapy drugs can be delivered in a similar manner. Nano-particles, typically slightly larger than atoms, are being used in medicine as part of wider research in which nanotechnology is being applied to fields as diverse as nutrition and building materials.
Dr Shahiwala said his research has not yet reached a stage where it had attracted research from drugmakers. However, he is working on several areas, such as water solubility of oil-based drugs, which would iron out some of the potential problems with treatments currently on the market.
Experts believe the technology should come into its own in the near future and have the potential to revolutionise the field. "This is an emerging area of ongoing research," said Dr Thomas Faunce, an associate professor of law and medicine at Australia National University who has researched nanotechnology's public health ramifications. "These delivery systems are still being researched around the world but they contain massive potential for the treatment of cancer."
The technology's practical applications began in 2008, when the US processed foods manufacturer Kraft conceived of a "programmable drink" comprised of millions of nano-carriers in a colourless, tasteless liquid. Depending on which particles were stimulated, the drink could then be converted into cola or orange juice.
Dr Saeed Ahmed Khan, the dean of Dubai Pharmacy College, said it was likely that nanotechnology-based drugs would one day be widely available. "They are less costly and more effective," he said.
That would be welcome news to Ingrid Valles Po, a breast cancer survivor in Dubai. She said it could be a breakthrough that would make treatment easier should it come to fruition. "I know how hard it was for me when I did chemo and was always tired and down," she said. "If this will reduce those feelings and keep up our strength while fighting this battle, it will definitely be something I will opt for and recommend."
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