Researchers at Manchester University are advancing a new targeted approach to treating cancer that involves ‘throwing’ drug-packed grenades with heat-sensitive triggers at tumour cells.

The team is presenting data from two studies at the National Cancer Research Institute conference in Liverpool this week indicating that liposomes can be fitted with a heat-activated trigger that releases a toxic payload at a certain temperature.

By slightly heating tumours in the lab and in mouse models, the researchers were able to control when the cancer-killing ‘grenades’ release their drugs into diseased tissue.

“The thermal trigger is set to 42 degrees celsius, which is just a few degrees warmer than normal body temperature. Although this work has only been done in the lab so far, there are a number of ways we could potentially heat cancer cells in patients - depending on the tumour type - some of which are already in clinical use,” said Kostas Kostarelos, study author and professor of nanomedicine at the University.

Using liposomes to deliver cancer medicines has been a “holy grail” of nanomedicine, “but finding ways to accurately direct the liposomes towards tumours has been a major challenge in targeted drug delivery,” said Charles Swanton, chair of the 2015 NCRI Cancer Conference. 

“This is still early work but these liposomes could be an effective way of targeting treatment towards cancer cells while leaving healthy cells unharmed,” he noted.