'Kill and thrill': A no-surgery option for skin cancer

Chemotherapy can be injected directly into tumours without damaging other parts of the body.

Dave Yasvinski 3 minute read February 3, 2021
Skin Cancer

A new treatment suggests there's a way to get rid of skin cancer without going under the knife. Getty

A promising new technique for fighting skin cancer by injecting nanoparticles directly into tumours may render the need for surgery obsolete.

According to the study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, treating one of the most common forms of cancer may soon be as simple as taking a trip to the doctor’s office. The revolutionary technique represents the breakthrough researchers have long sought, according to Michael Girardi, senior author of the study and a professor and vice chair of dermatology at Yale School of Medicine.

“For a lot of patients, treating skin cancer is much more involved than it would be if there was a way to effectively treat them with a simple procedure like an injection,” he said. “That’s always been a Holy Grail in dermatology — to find a simpler way to treat skin cancers such as basal cell carcinoma and squamous cell carcinoma.”

The treatment employs polymer-based nanoparticles to deliver doses of chemotherapy directly into the tumours caused by skin cancer. The nanoparticles come armed with a secret weapon — a bioadhesive property that allows them to bind directly to tumours long enough for the chemotherapy to kill off a significant number of cancer cells. Because the delivery system is narrowly targeted and remains in the area of the tumour, more powerful doses of chemotherapy can be used without risking damage to other parts of the body.

“When you inject our nanoparticles into a tumour, it turns out that they’re retained within that tumour very well,” said co-author Mark Saltzman, the Goizueta Foundation Professor of Biomedical Engineering, Chemical and Environmental Engineering, and professor of physiology. “They accumulate and bind to the tumour matrix, so one single injection lasts for a very long time — the particles stay there and slowly release the compounds. You need that to get rid of the lesion.”

Researchers found that tumours diminished much more significantly when the same drug was delivered by nanoparticles than injected freely into tumours. The treatment is enhanced when an agent is used to stimulate assistance from the body’s immune system. “I call the phenomenon ‘kill and thrill,’” Girardi said. “You don’t want to just kill the cells and leave them there, you want to stimulate the immune system to clean up the mess and also react against cells that might not have been killed directly. So, it’s a two-pronged attack on the cancer.”

Over 80,000 cases of skin cancer are diagnosed in Canada every year, according to the Canadian Skin Cancer Federation, a number greater than the new cases of breast, lung, prostate and colon cancers combined. Around 5,000 of these cases are melanoma — the deadliest form of skin cancer. In 2019, 7,800 Canadians were diagnosed with melanoma, with 1,300 expected to have succumbed to the disease.

Because the new treatment holds the potential to replace surgical intervention, complications — such as infections from post-operation wounds — could be avoided. It would also open up treatment to patients who have other conditions that make surgery unfeasible. Saltzman and Girardi are currently working with a startup called StraDEFY Biosciences Inc. to further develop and clinically test the treatment.

“In these studies, we did just a single injection and that’s how we’d like it to work clinically,” Saltzman said. “You go to a dermatologist, they see a lesion and inject into it, and it’s gone and you don’t have to come back.”

Dave Yasvinski is a writer withHealthing.ca

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