Oxygen nanocarriers to help phototherapy fight tumors


April 13, 2023

(Nanowerk News) The effectiveness of photodynamic therapy is limited by the lack of oxygen in solid cancers. Now, researchers at EU OXYGENATED project, led by biomeGUNE CIC research professor Sergio Moya, have created a drug nanocarrier to deliver oxygen to tumors. This strategy can increase the effectiveness of photodynamic therapy and contribute to making therapy more efficient in cancer patients. This project was also recognized as a success story by the European Commission.

Photodynamic therapy (PDT) combines light with photosensitive organic molecules known as photosensitizers. “When photosensitizers are administered to tumors and irradiated with light, they transfer energy to oxygen,” explains OXIGENATES project coordinator Sergio Moya. “This can trigger a series of reactions that lead to the destruction of malignant cells and activate the immune system.” All of these can lead to tumor eradication.

The main advantage of PDT is that it is very specific. When light and photosensitizers are restricted to tumors, most of the collateral damage to healthy tissue elsewhere in the body is avoided. However, the presence of oxygen is essential for PDT to be successful. “The difficulty here is that tumors are often characterized by limited oxygen availability,” said Moya. “If we can increase the availability of oxygen for photosensitizer action, we can improve PDT yields.”

A new way to transport oxygen

This is the main goal of the OXIGENATED project, launched in March 2019 and carried out with the support of the Marie Skłodowska-Curie Actions programme. “Our goal from the start was to find new ways to transport oxygen and photosensitizers to malignant tumors,” as Moya points out. “We saw that when oxygen availability increases in the environment of photosynthetic agents to initiate oxidation reactions, the effectiveness of photodynamic therapy will increase.”

To achieve this goal, the project team developed nanoparticles based on hemoglobin, the protein present in erythrocytes or red blood cells which is responsible for the natural transport of oxygen throughout the body. Unmodified hemoglobin cannot be administered directly into the body, as it can cause side effects. As Moya explains, “That’s why our work involves designing nanoparticles with a hemoglobin core, which can be used to deliver oxygen safely and without unwanted effects.”

The team managed to trap hemoglobin in a polymer or protein matrix, a technique that has been shown to prevent exposure of hemoglobin in the bloodstream while retaining its ability to carry and deliver oxygen.

Improving non-invasive techniques to treat cancer

By making PDT more effective, Moya and his team hope to offer an attractive alternative to chemotherapy and other more aggressive anti-neoplastic methods. The project, which is scheduled for completion in August 2024, has shown that this is very possible. To date, experiments have been carried out using in vitro cell culture,” added Moya. “In the next phase of the project, we will do that life as a proof of concept to demonstrate the functionality of these nanoparticles.” Effective and minimally aggressive treatments, such as optimized photodynamic therapy, will not only improve clinical outcomes and quality of life for cancer patients, but will also reduce the financial burden on the healthcare system.

Through international exchanges and the participation of young researchers, the project seeks to ensure the long-term sustainability of research in this promising field. “With the easing of restrictions due to COVID-19, we can quickly resume the exchange of researchers,” said Moya. “In the coming months, more researchers will benefit from working overseas, while the main goal of the project, which is to demonstrate the effectiveness of this new technique, will continue to be addressed.”


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