Invading Cancer Cells

Nanotechnology scientists study viruses in the hopes of developing new treatments for diseases like cancer.

© iStockphoto/Henrik5000

There are teams of engineers, computer scientists and doctors who are working on methods to cure cancer and other diseases on a cell-by-cell basis. One solution they're working on involves designing delivery technologies on the nanoscale. They're building medical nanoparticles -- objects that are smaller than 100 nanometers in diameter. A nanometer is one-billionth of a meter. In fact, the nanoscale is so small that it's impossible to view nanoparticles even with the aid of a light microscope.

The idea is elegant: Create a drug-delivery particle that can seek out a cancer cell, infiltrate it and deliver medication exactly where it needs to go. By targeting just the cancer cells, doctors hope to eliminate the disease while minimizing any side effects. Healthy cells would remain unaffected.

This is trickier than it sounds. But these teams have a natural model they can study to create nanoparticles: viruses. Viruses can measure only a few nanometers in length and are able to seek out specific kinds of cells somehow before replicating. Doctors hope to create nanoparticles that mimic this ability.