Tumors have a sneaky strategy of becoming resistant to chemotherapy drugs—they have a way of “pumping” them out, so the cytotoxic chemicals don’t have a chance to destroy the malignant cells within. Even some of the most potent chemotherapies that can penetrate the membranes of cancer cells can, over time, lose their edge, with the tumor again regaining control.
Oncologists sometimes turn to more aggressive strategies in a bid to combat cancer, administering patients with a cocktail of chemo drugs in the hopes that this will slow or possibly even bypass the development of tumor drug resistance. However, even combinations of powerful cancer-killing therapies are no match against some exceptionally resilient tumors.
Another alternative is the use of antibiotics to kill cancer, as these compounds have the ability to target actively dividing cells specifically. Sadly, however, tumors can become resistant to the effects of antibiotics such as ciprofloxacin too.
Biomedical engineers have been exploring new strategies to overcome drug resistance with the help of special polymers. Some early studies showed that chemically engineering ammonia molecules onto a scaffold of polycarbonate polymers gave the biomaterial superpowers: it could decimate both antibiotic-resistant bacteria and cancer cells, even without the presence of any other drugs.
Now, researchers have developed a cationic polymer that makes cancer cells up to 10 times more sensitive to the effect of cancer-killing drugs. The synergistic effect between the polymer and the chemo drug means that clinicians can slash the amount of toxic, side effect-inducing drugs they give patients while simultaneously preventing drug resistance.
In their study, the researchers observed that their cationic polymer drove around 2 to 3 times more damage to the cancer cell membrane within the first two hours of contact. This, in turn, enhanced the uptake of the chemotherapeutic in various drug-resistant cancer cells of the breast and liver.
Using drug-polymer combos is an emerging paradigm in cancer treatment and offers many potential benefits over other clinical strategies to fight cancer. For instance, this approach could breathe new life into existing off-the-shelf cancer therapies and eliminate the need for costly drug development efforts that can take years to reach patients.