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When loaded with an anticancer drug, a delivery system based on a novel material called nanosponge is three to five times more effective at reducing tumor growth than direct injection.
Targeted delivery systems of this type have several basic advantages: Because the drug is released at the tumor instead of circulating widely through the body, it should be more effective for a given dosage. It should also have fewer harmful side effects because smaller amounts of the drug come into contact with healthy tissue.
"We call the material nanosponge, but it is really more like a three-dimensional network or scaffold," says Harth. The backbone is a long length of polyester. It is mixed in solution with small molecules called cross-linkers that act like tiny grappling hooks to fasten different parts of the polymer together. The net effect is to form spherically shaped particles filled with cavities where drug molecules can be stored. The polyester is biodegradable, so it breaks down gradually in the body. As it does, it releases the drug it is carrying in a predictable fashion.
"Predictable release is one of the major advantages of this system compared to other nanoparticle delivery systems under development," says Harth. When they reach their target, many other systems unload most of their drug in a rapid and uncontrollable fashion. This is called the burst effect and makes it difficult to determine effective dosage levels.
Another major advantage is that the nanosponge particles are soluble in water. Encapsulating the anti-cancer drug in the nanosponge allows the use of hydrophobic drugs that do not dissolve readily in water. Currently, these drugs must be mixed with another chemical, called an adjuvant reagent, that reduces the efficacy of the drug and can have adverse side-effects
It is also possible to control the size of nanosponge particles. By varying the proportion of cross-linker to polymer, the nanosponge particles can be made larger or smaller. This is important because research has shown that drug delivery systems work best when they are smaller than 100 nanometers, about the depth of the pits on the surface of a compact disc