Professor Sylvain Martel is already a world leader in the field of nano-robotics, but now he's working to make a medical dream reality: To deliver toxic drug treatments directly to cancerous cells without damaging the body's healthy tissue.
The director of École Polytechnique de Montréal's NanoRobotics Laboratory, Prof. Martel's achievements include being the first researcher to guide a magnetic sphere through a living pig's carotid artery. Now, he's again pushing the envelope with an ambitious new project to deliver a drug via magnetic resonance.
Bolstered by his recent success in guiding micro-carriers loaded with cancer-fighting medications into a rabbit's liver, he and his team of up to 20 researchers from several disciplines are working to transfer the method to the treatment of colorectal cancer in humans within four years.
This time around he is not using micro-carriers to deliver the drug to the tumour, but rather bacteria.
Seated in a research facility in a cavernous building on the sprawling Polytechnique campus of the École Polytechnique de Montréal, Prof. Martel points to the Magnetic Resonance Imaging unit visible through the glass partition. The hulking piece of machinery (bought second-hand) does duty as the main piece of hardware for tests in which magnetic resonance precisely directs the microscopic bacteria – with a diameter of two micrometers (a strand of hair measures about 80 micrometers) – through tiny blood vessels to the targeted cancerous area.
It's painstaking work. Just coming up with a workable algorithm for the software took two years.
"You rack your brains just trying to create the right magnetic field," he says.
The MRI machine's magnetic field is manipulated by the sophisticated software program that helps guide the magnetically sensitive bacteria to the tumour mass.
Attached to the bacteria is a capsule containing the cancer-fighting drug. The bacteria are tricked into swimming to an artificially created "magnetic north" at the centre of the tumour, where they will die off after 30 to 40 minutes. The micro-mules, however, have left their precious cargo: the capsule, whose envelope breaks and releases the drug.
Should the procedure eventually prove safe and effective in humans, it could be a game-changer in cancer treatment.
The less invasive technique, for example, could be an additional tool in the treatment of localized cancers by delivering drugs to only the targeted area, thus sparing other organs or parts of the body. It would also allow for the delivery of smaller, more precisely aimed doses, thus reducing toxicity levels and related secondary effects.
The human bloodstream – comprised of close to 100,000 kilometres of pathways – offers an ideal entry point to every part of the human body. Localized access using nanotechnology could allow for novel cancer treatments such as increasing the temperature in a specific area of the body to potentially kill cancerous cells. Also possible is the development of new, minimally invasive surgical techniques.
Prof. Martel, who obtained his PhD from McGill University in electrical engineering in 1997 and did postdoctoral studies at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, says winning over skeptics as the research progressed wasn't easy.
At one point, he and the team produced a video that shows some 5,000 bacteria – "like 5,000 slaves," Prof. Martel jokes – working in unison to transport minuscule epoxy bricks and then assemble a microscopic step pyramid. The job took all of 15 minutes.
The clip was screened at the International Conference on Intelligent Robots and Systems two years ago and helped convince naysayers, he says.
"If we can build a pyramid, we can certainly deliver a drug," he says, laughing.
Prof. Martel likens his role to that of an orchestra conductor, only he's directing the efforts of experts in such varied fields as pathology, biochemistry, oncology, software design and pharmacology.
The Quebec Consortium for Drug Discovery recently announced a $1.9-million grant to the research into colorectal cancer treatment, whose partners include Université de Montréal, McGill and Univalor, the Université de Montréal agency that aims to commercialize research at the university and its affiliated institutes and hospitals.
The work also has financial support from three major pharmaceutical companies.
"We have a lot of expertise in Montreal. It's all here," Prof. Martel says.
Indeed, Montreal is a key biotech centre in Canada, helping burnish this country's reputation as one of the top-five biotech leaders in the world.
But all is not well, a recent report by Ernst & Young says.
"From an intellectual point of view, our people in the biotech sector can compete in any shape or form around the world. Unfortunately, they're not rising to the top from lack of funding," says Paul Karamanoukian, E&Y's Canadian life sciences industry leader.
Venture capital funding, for example, is at its lowest level in 10 years, he points out.
Canadian biotechs raised about $480-million (U.S.) in 2010, a decrease of $251-million compared with 2009, according to E&Y.