Is nanomedicine the next big thing? A growing number of top drug companies
seem to think so. The ability to encapsulate potent drugs in tiny particles
measuring billionths of a metre in diameter is opening up new options for
super-accurate drug delivery, increasing precision hits at the site of disease
with, hopefully, fewer side effects.
Three deals struck this year by privately held Bind Therapeutics, together
worth nearly $1 billion if experiments are successful, highlight a new interest
in using such tiny carriers to deliver drug payloads to specific locations in
US based Bind is one of several biotechnology firms that are luring large
pharmaceutical makers with a range of smart drug nanotechnologies, notably
And nanomedicine is also being put to work in diagnosis, with tiny particles
used to improve imaging in scanners, as well as rapidly detecting some serious
infections. In future, researchers hope to combine both treatment and diagnostics in a
new approach dubbed "theranostics" that would allow doctors to monitor patients
via their medicines.
After much hype but limited clinical success, scientists in the
nanotechnology field finally see a turning point.
"We have been hearing about the promise of nanomedicine for a long time, but
it is now really starting to move," said Dan Peer, who runs a nanomedicine
laboratory at Tel Aviv University.
"There is a new level of confidence in this approach among the big
pharmaceutical companies. We will see more and more products in clinical testing
over the next few years and I think that is very exciting."
Nanoparticles made of polymers, gold and even graphene - a newly-discovered
form of carbon - are now in various stages of development.
In cancer alone, 117 drugs are being assessed using nanoparticle
formulations, though most have yet to be tried on patients, according to Thomson
Reuters Pharma data.
Other potential applications include treatments for inflammatory disorders,
heart and brain diseases, and pain.
Companies are increasingly focused on better drug targeting to increase
efficacy and lessen the collateral damage caused by medicinal "carpet bombing" -
a particular problem in cancer, where toxic compounds are needed to kill
The work on drug-carrying nanoparticles parallels advances in using so-called
"armed antibodies" to deliver drugs direct to cancer cells - an approach
championed by Roche.
The Swiss group won US approval in February for Kadcyla, its first such
antibody-drug conjugate, which treats breast cancer with fewer side effects like
"All these developments have prompted companies to look at new avenues
because the older ways of using drugs haven't worked so well," said Robert
Langer, a pioneer of nanomedicine who runs the world's largest biomedical
engineering laboratory at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
Having worked on drug delivery since the 1970s, Langer has seen plenty of ups
The world's first nanomedicine was actually approved back in 1995 when US
regulators gave a green light to Doxil for treating Kaposi's sarcoma, a cancer
often associated with AIDS.
Doxil - a hollow fatty ball known as a liposome with a cancer-killing drug
inside it - was a breakthrough. Yet few other nanomedicines have followed.
Recent scientific advances have changed the game, however. Bind's
nanoparticles, for example, are programmed to reach the right spot using
targeting molecules that recognise specific proteins linked to disease on the
surface of cells.
They also have a stealth covering that shields them from the immune system,
in order to minimise adverse reactions.
Since January, Amgen, Pfizer and AstraZeneca have all signed up to use Bind's
technology, which comes from work originally carried out in Langer's lab.
And Bind is not the only game in town. Another approach, using tiny particles
of gold as drug carriers, is being explored in a deal that AstraZeneca signed in
December with CytImmune.
"Anything you can do to improve targeting of tumours rather than normal
tissue - whether that is through an armed antibody or nanoparticle approach -
increases the chance of success," said Susan Galbraith, who leads AstraZeneca's
The work remains early stage and Peer of Tel Aviv University says all the
novel carriers will have to be studied closely for potential toxicity. However,
experience with liposomes is good and versions of gold nanoparticles have also
been used safely for many years to treat rheumatoid arthritis.
Injecting patients with gold may sound like a pricey option but with
thousands of nanoparticles fitting into the width of a human hair, the amount of
metal used is tiny.
Gold, unlike some other metals, is not toxic and has been used in various
medical treatments for many years without harmful effects.
Bind CEO Scott Minick also thinks his polymer technology will have cost
advantages over expensive antibody drugs.
Further out, Kostas Kostarelos, professor of nanomedicine at University
College London, has high hopes for graphene - a one-atom-thick form of carbon.
His team is currently working with graphene nanomaterials in pre-clinical
"We will see parallel development of different materials, each offering
something different therapeutically," he said.
Other venture-backed nanomedicine firms include Cerulean Pharma, whose
technology has made a highly potent cancer drug tolerable but which recently had
disappointing results in a clinical study, and two companies looking at new
Selecta Biosciences has a deal on food allergy vaccines with Sanofi, while
Liquidia Technologies is allied with GlaxoSmithKline on vaccines and inhaled
MIT's Langer is convinced more Big Pharma companies will think small in
"You can be sure others will jump on the bandwagon sooner or later. That
doesn't mean they might not jump off for a little bit too - but they will jump
back on. These technologies are here to stay," he said.