The Greeks used the Trojan horse to enter the city of Troy and win the war after a fruitless 10-year siege. For brain tumors, the war is ongoing.

Brain tumors are the second-leading cause of cancer-related deaths in children under age 20, the second-leading cause of cancer-related deaths in males ages 20-39, and the fifth-leading cause of cancer-related deaths in females ages 20-39.

But researchers may have finally found their secret weapon using nanotechnology.

Glioblastomas, notoriously difficult to treat, are tumors that arise from astrocytes — the star-shaped cells that make up the "glue-like," supportive tissue of the brain. These tumors are usually highly malignant because the cells reproduce quickly, and they are supported by a large network of blood vessels. Because these tumors come from normal brain cells, it is easy for them to invade and live within normal brain tissue, which makes removal of the tumor nearly impossible.

Enter our modern-day Trojan horse gold nanoparticles which are smuggled into brain cancer cells to kill them. Scientists have been researching ways in which gold nanoparticles might be used in treatments for quite a while. Since gold is a benign material, there is no threat to patients, and the size and shape of the particles can be controlled.

This study, which has enormous potential in the war against brain tumors, was led by Mark Welland, professor of nanotechnology at the Department of Engineering and a fellow of St. John's College, University of Cambridge, and Dr. Colin Watts, a consultant neurosurgeon at the Department of Clinical Neurosciences.

The technique involved engineering nanostructures containing both gold and cisplatin, a conventional chemotherapy drug. These were released into tumor cells that had been taken from glioblastoma patients and grown in the lab.

Once inside, these cell nanospheres were exposed to radiotherapy, causing the gold to release electrons. The electrons damaged the cancer cells' DNA and overall structure, thereby enhancing the impact of the chemotherapy drug.

The chemotherapeutic effect of cisplatin combined with the radiosensitizing effect of the gold nanoparticles resulted in enhanced synergy, enabling a more effective cellular damage. In fact, this process was so effective that 20 days later, the cell cultures were free of tumor cells.

University of Cambridge

This research is particularly important because the team was able to test the approach on evolving drug-resistant tumors, such as glioblastomas. In this approach, cancer cells can be hit with more than one treatment at the same time a double whammy which is important because some cancer cells are more resistant to one type of treatment than another.

Also, chemotherapy drugs can cause a dip in the rate that the tumor is spreading, which is often temporary. Researchers think that if they can turn this method into an applicable treatment for patients with treatment-resistant glioblastomas, then similar models could eventually be used to treat other types of challenging cancers an enemy worth fighting.