International team finds help from boron nitride nanotubes in cancer treatment | The American Ceramic Society

International team finds help from boron nitride nanotubes in cancer treatment

The first macroscopic, commercially usable BNNTs, spun into a 3-centimeter-long, 1-milimeter-diameter piece of yarn. Credit: Michael Smith.

Once again, we are reminded that not all scientifically interesting nanotubes are of the carbon variety. Researchers from a number of US and international institutions have released a new study that suggests that placing boron nitride nanotubes on the surface of cancer cells may be able to significantly improve one of the treatment options for soft-tissue cancers, such as those in the pancreas, liver, lung, brain and prostate.

The treatment is called Irreversible Electroporation and it is a relatively new and minimally invasive treatment for difficult-to-treat cancers in soft tissues that uses short pulses of high amplitude static electric fields to attack the cell walls of tumors. “Irreversible Electroporation is a way of putting holes in the wall of a tumor cell,” says Michael W. Smith in a story on the Jefferson Lab website. Smith, now the chief scientist at BNNT LLC, was formerly a staff scientist at NASA’s Langley Research Center. “The cell will literally go, ‘Oh, something’s terribly wrong,’ and kill itself. That’s called apoptosis,” he explains.

According to the Jefferson Lab story, Smith read about research being conducted at the Institute of Life Sciences, Scuola Superiore Sant’Anna in Pisa with BNNTs in a journal, and “he offered the researchers a sample of the very high-quality Jefferson Lab/NASA Langley/National Institute of Aerospace BNNTs. These BNNTs are highly crystalline and have a small diameter. Structurally, they also contain few walls with minimal defects, and are very long and highly flexible.”

Using the new BNNTs with in vitro samples, the Italian researchers found the IRE treatment method combined with BNNTs killed twice as many cancer cells (88 percent) on the tumor surface than without (40 percent).

“They were able to get, in a petri dish, more than double the effectiveness. So, this technique works twice as well with our nanotubes on the cells than without them” says Smith. Smith’s company acquired on March 22 the intellectual property rights for making the material available for scientific and commercial research, development and products.

The collaborators are now attempting to scale up the BNNT production process and improve their purity. They caution that their IRE/BNNT work is still very preliminary and say their next step will be studies in mice.

The BNNTs given to the Italian group were made, according to the Jefferson Lab story, using a pressurized vapor/condenser, where a laser aimed at at a boron target first creates boron gas. Then the gas is exposed to a condensor metal wire, which causes liquid boron droplets to form. These droplets combine with the nitrogen to self-assemble into BNNTs.

The work is featured in a paper in Technology in Cancer Research and Treatment.