An IU scientist devised a way to deliver a pair of drugs to the inner sanctum of breast cancer cells and destroy them.

Detonating Cancer

An IU scientist devised a way to deliver a pair of drugs to the inner sanctum of breast cancer cells and destroy them.

IN THE fight against one of the most aggressive forms of breast cancer, an Indiana University School of Medicine researcher is refining what he hopes will be a weapon as deadly as its foe—a “nanobomb.”

Xiongbin Lu, PhD, the Vera Bradley Foundation Professor of Breast Cancer Innovation, is working on a microscopic cancer-fighting tool that—in its assault on triple negative breast cancer cells—acts almost like a Trojan horse, but with an explosive twist. 

Lu’s nanobomb is a pair of cancer drugs—one already in use and another experimental—wrapped in a package that helps it travel safely through the bloodstream. Once it reaches cancer cells, the nanobomb is ushered inside through the natural process of how cells eat—endocytosis. The acidity of its new environment triggers the nanobomb, causing it to expand—anywhere from 100 to 1,000 times its original size. Under the strain, the bomb’s package breaks apart, and the two drugs are released to kill the cancer cell.

The nanobomb, which has shown promising results in animal testing, represents a potentially important advancement in the war on triple negative breast cancer

Currently, the disease is treated with some combination of surgery, radiation and standard chemotherapy. But chemo is ineffective against the mutant gene that causes triple negative breast cancer. Making matters worse, it kills nearby healthy cells, causing side effects. 

Lu’s nanobomb aims to avoid the collateral damage. It targets a gene that can withstand the drugs within normal cells. But in cancer cells carrying the now-mutant gene the drugs function as a specific poison. 

“It kills the cancer cells,” Lu said, “but leaves the healthy cells intact.”

Lu’s lab is developing the nanobomb with a colleague at the University of Maryland. The researchers have applied for a patent, but they are still looking for funding to push the nanobomb into clinical trials.

The need is great. 

Triple negative breast cancer accounts for about 15 to 20 percent of all breast cancers, tending to occur more often in young women and black women. Its aggressive nature is the reason researchers at the Vera Bradley Foundation Center have put triple negative on their target list. 

It’s why Xiongbin Lu is developing a nanobomb.

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Bobby King

Bobby King is the director of development and alumni communications in the Office of Gift Development. Before joining the IU School of Medicine in 2018, Bobby was a reporter with The Indianapolis Star. Before that he was a reporter for newspapers in Kentucky, South Carolina and Florida.

The views expressed in this content represent the perspective and opinions of the author and may or may not represent the position of Indiana University School of Medicine.