The chemotherapy drug paclitaxel is commonly used to treat breast, lung and pancreatic cancers, slowing their growth by preventing cancerous cells from replicating. But once administered the drug is attacked by the body’s defenses, necessitating larger doses that result in complications such as joint pain, diarrhea and an impaired ability to fend off other infections. Researchers have now discovered a way to sneak the drug through to the tumor with its entire payload intact, a technique that could make for more effective cancer treatments with fewer side effects.
In investigating ways cancer drugs may be able to slip through the body’s defenses, scientists at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill were experimenting with exosomes. Derived from the body’s white blood cells, these tiny bubbles are made from the same material as cell membranes and help to protect against infection. The same researchers have had some promising results in using exosomes as a way to sneak drugs into the brain to treat neurological disorders.
“Exosomes are engineered by nature to be the perfect delivery vehicles,” says Elena Batrakova, associate professor in the UNC Chapel Hill. “By using exosomes from white blood cells, we wrap the medicine in an invisibility cloak that hides it from the immune system. We don’t know exactly how they do it, but the exosomes swarm the cancer cells, completely bypassing any drug resistance they may have and delivering their payload.”