STAT+: Lighting up cancer cells with pH-activated nanoparticles

The human body carefully regulates its pH. Tumors, however, may not, creating a new target for fine-tuning cancer therapy with nanoparticles.

NEW ORLEANS — On a screen at the American Association of Cancer Research (AACR) conference here on Saturday, one of Jinming Gao’s graduate students squirted an acid into a test tube in their lab at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center. Almost immediately, fluid at the end of the tube began to glow as a white star under infrared light, visible on a surgical monitor. When the student squirted it with a base, the light winked out.

Inside the tube is a nanomaterial that, on the molecular level, looks like a cluster of strings — polymers — organized into a sphere. Gao, a biomedical engineer working in cancer applications and a member of the Harold C. Simmons Comprehensive Cancer Center, calls it a micelle, and it has several unique properties that experts say other labs have struggled to achieve. In particular, micelles can carry a therapeutic payload and deliver it only at the precise acidity of a cancer tumor.

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