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  • Nanobubbles detect and destroy disease

Apr 2010
Hank Hogan,

HOUSTON and MINSK, Belarus – Tiny bubbles pack a punch, enough to potentially knock out cancer. They also could be used for cancer diagnostics, offering a tool to both detect and treat the disease. Those are some of the research findings of a group from Rice University and the University of Texas M.D. Anderson Center, both in Houston, and the A.V. Lykov Heat and Mass Transfer Institute in Minsk, Belarus.

Research leader Dmitri O. Lapotko noted that the researchers demonstrated what they call theranostics, a novel approach that combines diagnosis, therapy and guidance of that therapy to specific cells or tissues. The aim is to do this on the most fundamental level.

Lapotko, a physicist at Rice with an appointment at the institute, said, “The goal is cell-level theranostics – future medicine that spots and eliminates disease before it develops into a real threat.”

The scientists showed how this might work by using gold nanoparticles and lasers to create tunable, transient plasmonic nanobubbles, which they generated by exposing gold nanoparticles to the appropriate laser light. The plasmonic nanobubbles thus produced form the basis for both diagnostics and treatment.

Gold nanoparticles taken into a cancer cell generate a nanobubble and an accompanying signal when hit with a pump laser pulse. Increasing the laser power produces a larger bubble, which mechanically damages the cell. Courtesy of Dmitri Lapotko, Rice University.

In this scheme, the researchers target the nanoparticles at specific cells by functionalizing them with conjugate antibodies. As a result, the gold nanoparticles accumulate in those cells with specific characteristics, and the plasmonic nanobubbles also are produced in those cells.

In a Feb. 26, 2010, Nanotechnology paper demonstrating this concept, they reported using living lung cancer cells that expressed the epidermal growth factor receptor. They coated 50-nm-diameter gold nanoparticles with an antibody to that receptor and incubated them with the cells.

In their setup, they used a 0.5-ns, 532-nm laser pulse to generate the plasmonic nanobubbles. They chose this wavelength because it was near the nanoparticles’ plasmon resonance peak, a point of maximum response that changes with particle size.

For bubble detection, they used a 0.5-ns, 690-nm probe laser to do time-resolved optical scattering imaging. They delayed the probe anywhere from 1 to 10 ns behind the pump pulse, which allowed time for the bubbles to form and so be detected without cell damage. For imaging, they used a CCD camera from Andor Technology of Belfast, UK, with optics collecting the light from the sample and sending it to the camera.

When continuous monitoring was required, they used a continuous probe laser at 633 nm and a photodetector from Thorlabs of Newton, N.J. This arrangement enabled them to gauge the lifetime of the bubbles, which is related to bubble size. Bigger bubbles last longer – and they also do more damage. Thus, by tuning the laser pulse energy used to generate the bubbles to a low level, the investigators could have the bubbles merely highlight target cell location. At a higher level, the bubbles would be larger, and the energy they released could damage or even destroy cells.

The researchers showed that the plasmonic nanobubbles produced a fiftyfold increase in scattering and, hence, detectability, as compared with the signal from the nanoparticles alone. These bubbles also could destroy targeted cells by various means, including by disrupting their membranes. Because the laser parameters required for detection are quite different from those needed for destruction, one possible extension of this setup would result in real-time adjustment and guidance of plasmonic nanobubble theranostics at the cellular level.

As for the future, Lapotko noted that different-size particles would allow the use of various laser wavelengths in the technique. He also said that clinical applications based on the nanobubble approach are under development. There have been some promising results that should be published soon, he said. “We have generated plasmonic nanobubbles in vivo and were able to detect them without any harm to a host.”

A light-tight box that receives light from an object or scene and focuses it to form an image on a light-sensitive material or a detector. The camera generally contains a lens of variable aperture and a shutter of variable speed to precisely control the exposure. In an electronic imaging system, the camera does not use chemical means to store the image, but takes advantage of the sensitivity of various detectors to different bands of the electromagnetic spectrum. These sensors are transducers...
A device used to sense incident radiation.
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