"I think I'm more excited about this than probably anything I've seen in my lifetime," said Dr. Anna Barker, deputy director of the National Cancer Institute. She's talking about nanotechnology, nano meaning one-billionth of a meter or less than 1/80,000 the width of a human hair.
Researchers are engineering these tiny particles to seek out and destroy cancer cells.
"We can actually get things into cells and manipulate things within the cells that means that we can deliver drugs to cells very specifically," Barker said.
The government has made nanotechnology a major priority, spending $144 million to fund eight research centers, like one in Boston at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
"Here's the targeted nano-particle. Shrinks the tumor to pretty much nothing," TK said.
Bob Langer is developing a nanoparticle delivery system. Inside, the particle is loaded with cancer-killing drugs. Outside, it's coated with proteins that send the drug directly to prostate-cancer cells.
"Once we do the coating right it hopefully goes to where we want it to go," Langer, who works at the MIT-Harvard Center of Cancer Nanotechnology, said.
Senay asked: "So it's like a little address out there?"
"That's right it's like a little address that could basically say, go here," Langer said.
Like a silver bullet, the nanoparticle hits and releases toxins inside cancerous cells. The coal is to spare normal tissues and avoid the side effects common to most chemotherapies.
"You're giving a lot of drug right to the part of the body where you want it to go to and very, very little to the rest of the body where it could cause harm," Langer said. "This technology can be applied to different kinds of cancers, and different kinds of treatments. It really has a tremendous potential to be revolutionary in the way we treat patients and the way we treat cancer.
At Johns Hopkins, George Sgouros is researching nanoparticles packed with radioactivity.
"We're targeting disease you don't really see initially, in a very direct way, we're actually delivering the radioactivity to the patient from within," Sgouros said.
Physician and MIT researcher Sangeeta Bhatia is working on her own supercharged nanoparticle - one that could detect, kill and monitor cancer cells all at once.
"That particle would image and treat tumors," Bhatia said.
So it would show the doctor where the tumor is?
"And then kill tumors, that's the idea," Bhatia said.
One idea that has already been tested in patient: a nanoparticle enhanced MRI that spots cancer. It's now awaiting FDA approval.
"You can see the node to the patients left which is cancerous, the node to the patients right which is normal," said Dr. Mukesh Harisinghani of Massachusetts General Hospital.
"The beauty of nanotechnology is that it really allows us to get at the complexity of the disease," Barker said. "Sounds a little Star Wars right but we've got people actually doing this."