Researchers from University of the Basque Country team have developed nano-hydrogel - small particles that are capable of detecting cancer cells and release medication where required.
The hydrogels are polymers in the shape of a net. They can swell up - by absorption - but cannot be dissolved in a liquid.
This type of polymers can be used to make artificial muscle or for capturing heavy metals in waste water.
The team led by Dr. Issa A. Katime have come up with 'intelligent' hydrogels that are capable of detecting changes in pH.
While blood generally has a pH of 7.4, in a zone where a cancer is located it drops to 4.7-5.2.
These hydrogels are functionalised with folic acid, which has the ability to detect and to "trick" cancer cells, in such a way that these permit penetration of their membranes: under these conditions the hydrogel acts like a "Trojan horse".
Once in the cell interior, the change in pH favours the swelling of the nano-hydrogel and, thus, the release of the pharmaceutical drug.
These nano-hydrogels are not only useful for combating cancer. The application of nano-hydrogels with anti-tubercular pharmaceutical drugs is currently being investigated.
Today, the most effective anti-tubercular drugs have to be injected several times daily, a problem in areas with poor access to health centres, as in developing countries.
The research team is designing a system with nano-hydrogels that contains a mixture of anti-tubercular pharmaceutical drugs and which release this medication in a controlled and constant manner over long periods of time.