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A project to study and treat injury and tumours in the brain with light


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A project to study and treat injury and tumours in the brain with light Cancer cells invading a mouse brain (blood vessels in red). /Manuel Valiente. CNIO

CNIO and CSIC are part of a European project to study the use of photonics in non-invasive interventions

NanoBright is being developed by a team of experts in physics, cancer biology, nanotechnology and neuroscience

The project, budgeted at 3.5 million euro, is funded by the European Commission

The Spanish National Cancer Research Centre (CNIO) and the Spanish National Research Council (CSIC) will take part in NanoBright, an ambitious international project that will use light to study and treat brain tumours and other pathological conditions of the brain. Specifically, photonics will be used in non-invasive interventions by a multidisciplinary team of researchers in the fields of physics, nanotechnology, cancer biology and neuroscience. A four-year project budgeted at 3.5 million euro, NanoBright will be coordinated by Istituto Italiano di Tecnologia, with the participation of Université Pierre et Marie Curie (France).

The project will be run by an international consortium whose members will develop nanometric probes that generate adjustable light beams whose physical properties are useful for the chemical and biological analysis of brain cells. This type of novel biomedical probes will enable scientists to identify new diagnostic methods and therapeutic strategies.

The probes will be made of metal structures at nanometric scale (plasmonic nanostructures) that will amplify light signals. The devices will precisely point the light to cause optical interaction with brain cells and analyse their properties for the improvement of diagnostic methods and treatments for certain tumours.

The method can be used, for instance, to study the oxidative stress that occurs in nerve cells after traumatic brain injury or epilepsy, as well as the molecular characteristics, types and invasive capacity of brain tumours, thus eliminating the need for a biopsy.

This technology can also be used to increase the temperature of a certain tissue locally, which is going to be applied to permeabilize selectively the blood-brain barrier (BBB). Since the BBB restricts the passage of drugs, this application of NanoBright might help to overcome the difficulty of delivering anti-tumour drugs to the brain.

“At Instituto Cajal we will be focused on the use of probes for analysing oxidative stress, in both epilepsy and traumatic brain injury,” says CSIC scientist and epilepsy expert Liset Menéndez de la Prida, who will lead the neuroscientific application of the project.

“Optical applications like optogenetics are revolutionary techniques in the field of neurological disorders. However, they cannot be easily translated into clinical practice because specific brain regions must be genetically modified so that they become light sensitive. NanoBright aims at exploiting the properties of light and their interaction with matter, avoiding the need for the genetic modification of brain tissue,” Menéndez de la Prida explains.

The Brain Metastasis Group at CNIO will apply prototype probes to distinguish primary from metastatic tumours, whose treatments are different, and to make BBB more permeable in selected regions, allowing anti-tumour drugs to pass through the vascular barrier.

According to researcher Manuel Valiente, coordinator of the project at CNIO, “We are really excited with the innovative and challenging character of the project. NanoBright will develop approaches quite different from the ones we normally carry out here, but we have built a very competitive consortium integrating multiple disciplines usually not connected to work collaboratively. The study may lead to the design of new, less invasive diagnostic methods and treatments, as well as to a considerable increase in the number of drugs to be used in brain tumours.”

The project will get 3.5 million euro over the next four years through FET (Future and Emerging Technologies), one of the most ambitious funding channels of the European Commission for the development of ground-breaking technologies.

A multidisciplinary initiative

“NanoBright is a multidisciplinary initiative that brings together the experience of Istituto Italiano di Tecnologia in the field of high-resolution neural probes and the knowledge of neuroscientists specialising in specific pathologies,” says scientist Ferruccio Pisanello of the Italian research centre coordinating the project. ‘Within the framework of FET Open, we will explore new scenarios to increase the understanding of brain tumours and epilepsy, while laying the foundations for a whole new generation of medical devices,’ he adds.

Researchers at Istituto Italiano di Tecnologia in Lecce, Italy, will contribute their experience in the creation of optical and photonic interconnections with CNS tissue. They will design, develop and test implantable devices. The Italian centre will share their knowledge of plasmons and nerve cells connections and their experience in measuring and reading optical signal amplification. Furthermore, the Italian team will optimise plasmonic structures to characterise tumour tissues.

In France, scientists at the Kastler-Brossel Laboratory of Université Pierre et Marie Curie will study optical systems at nanoscale to be used by the institutions in the consortium, focusing on the characterisation of plasmonic structures and optimising nanostructure performance.

NanoBright is bound to make progress through multidisciplinary work. The teams will test new intervention strategies based on a better understanding of the biological processes underlying a number of neurological diseases and conditions.

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