Despite its reputation as a poison, arsenic has long been used in Chinese medicine and, more recently, arsenic trioxide has been successfully used to treat acute promyelocytic leukaemia (APL). The drug has poor activity against solid tumours, however, probably because it is rapidly excreted. Attempting to address this, researchers at Northwestern University have packaged arsenic trioxide in nanoparticles.
These nanoparticles, termed nanobins, are composed of nanoparticulate arsenic trioxide encapsulated in liposomes. A second chemical layer provides protection for both the cargo and normal cells until the particle reaches its target. The nanoparticles concentrate at their target, as a consequence of the leaky blood vessels that characterise solid tumours, and release their toxic payload.
In the current study, published in Clinical Cancer Research, the researchers investigated the activity of arsenic nanobins against a panel of human breast cancer cell lines. Although less cytotoxic than free arsenic trioxide in vitro, the nanobins had dramatically enhanced efficacy in an in vivo model of triple-negative breast cancer. The scientists observed reduced plasma clearance, increased tumour uptake and induction of tumour cell apoptosis for the nanobins.
Triple negative breast cancer, in which the receptors for oestrogen, progesterone and Her2 are absent, is an aggressive cancer that often responds poorly to conventional chemotherapy. There is a high risk of metastatis and survival rates are low. Although at an early stage, the researchers anticipate that the nanobin technology could provide the means to increase the efficacy of a number of cytotoxic drugs against a range of tumours, whilst reducing general toxicity.