Magnetic nanoparticles deliver drugs directly to diseased cells
7 February 2013
Magnetic nanoparticles can deliver drugs to diseased cells in
the body, such as cancer, and limit side effects on other parts of the
body. This opens up new possibilities for the development of more
efficient targeted treatments.
Certain drugs are toxic by nature. For example, anti-cancer drugs
developed to kill diseased cells also harm healthy ones. To limit
the side effects of chemotherapy, it would be a great step forward
if it were possible to release a drug only in the affected area of
A Swiss research team has discovered a method that could be an
important step towards the development of an intelligent drug of
this kind. By combining their expert knowledge in the areas of
material sciences, biological nanomaterials and medicine, they were
able to prove the feasibility of using a nanovehicle to transport
drugs and release them in a controlled manner.
This nanocontainer is a liposome, which takes the shape of a
vesicle. It has a diameter of 100 to 200 nanometers and is 100 times
smaller than a human cell. The membrane of the vesicle is composed
of phospholipids and the inside of the vesicle offers room for the
drug. On the surface of the liposome, specific molecules help to
target malignant cells and to hide the nanocontainer from the immune
system, which might otherwise consider it a foreign entity and seek
to destroy it. Now the researchers only needed to discover a
mechanism to open up the membrane at will.
The integrated into the liposome membrane superparamagnetic iron
oxide nanoparticles (SPION), which only become magnetic in the
presence of an external magnetic field. Once they are in the field,
the SPIONs heat up. The heat makes the membrane permeable and the
drug is released. Researchers proved the feasibility of such a
nanovehicle by releasing in a controlled manner a coloured substance
contained in the liposomes.
"We can really talk of nanomedicine in this context because, by
exploiting superparamagnetism, we are exploiting a quantum effect
which only exists at the level of nanoparticles," explains Heinrich
Hofmann of the Powder Technology Laboratory of EPFL. SPION are also
an excellent contrast agent in magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). A
simple MRI shows the location of the SPION and allows for the
release of the drug once it has reached the targeted spot.
Designed for medical practice
"To maximise the chances of discovering an effective treatment,
we focused on nanocontainers, which would be readily accepted by
doctors," adds Heinrich Hofmann.
This strategy limits the range of possibilities. Liposomes, which
are already used in a number of drugs on the market, are composed of
natural phospholipids which can also be found in the membranes of
To open them up, researchers focused on SPION, which had already
been the subject of numerous toxicological studies. More efficient
materials were ignored because little or nothing was known about
their effects on humans. In terms of shape, another important
parameter of magnetism, they chose to use only spherical
nanoparticles, which are considered safer than fibrous shapes. The
intensity and frequency of the magnetic field needed to release the
active agent are compatible with human physiology.
The combination of these parameters presented the researchers
with another challenge: to reach a temperature sufficiently high to
open up the liposomes, they were forced to increase the size of the
SPION from 6 to 15 nanometres. The membrane of the vesicles has a
thickness of only 4-5 nanometres.
Then the masterstroke: the research group of Alke Fink at the
Adolphe Merkle Institute was able to regroup the SPION in one part
of the membrane (*). This also made MRI detection easier. Before
starting in-vivo tests, the researchers aim to study the integration
of SPION into the liposome membrane in greater detail.
The study was part of the National Research Programme called
Smart Materials, and involved the Swiss National Science Foundation
(SNSF), the Commission for Technology and Innovation (CTI), ETH
Lausanne, the Adolphe Merkle Institute and the University Hospital
Bonnaud Cécile, Vanhecke Dimitri, Demurtas, Davide,
Rothen-Rutishauser Barbara and Fink Alke (2013). Spatial SPION
localization in liposome membranes. IEEE Transaction on Magnetics: