Skin cancer treatments could be used to treat other forms of the disease

Write by Sophie Laberge

July 21, 2020

( update : September 15, 2020 )

The creation of a silica nanocapsule could allow treatments that use light to destroy cancerous or precancerous cells in the skin to also be used to treat other types of cancer.

Such are the findings of a study by INRS (Institut national de la recherche scientifique) professors Fiorenzo Vetrone and Federico Rosei, in collaboration with an international research team. Their results have been published in an article featured on the cover of the 26th edition of the Royal Society of Chemistry journal Chemical Science.

Photodynamic therapies, referred to as PDT, are treatments that use visible light to destroy cancerous or precancerous cells. Abnormal tissue is brought into contact with a light-activated and light-sensitive medication before it is exposed to light, triggering a chemical reaction that releases reactive oxygen species (ROS) to attack the diseased cells. In current treatments, the medication is injected into unhealthy tissue. But injection only works if tumours are on or under the skin, such as skin cancers.

Découverte majeure en chimie pour l’équipe du professeur Fiorenzo Vetrone
Image reproduced by permission of Fiorenzo Vetrone and The Royal Society of Chemistry from Chem. Sci., 2020,11, 6653-6661,

The research team found a way around the limitation, so phototherapies can be used to treat other types of cancers as well. Thanks to silica nanoparticles doctors can use near-infrared (NIR) light, which penetrates further down into the tissue. The nanoparticles convert NIR light into visible light, triggering a chemical reaction and releasing ROS. “It’s like we’ve reinforced the capsule that transports the treatment for diseased cells and increased the versatility of PDT. This nano superhero is stronger and more effective, even inside the body,” explained Professor Vetrone, referring to the cover illustration depicting the team’s discovery.

Developed by a team of chemists, magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) experts, and an oncologist, the new way of selectively enveloping light-sensitive medication in a nanocapsule could be beneficial for diagnosis and treatment. “Eventually, nanocapsules will help us expand the scope of application,” added the professor.

Next, the team plans to test the nanoparticles in an in-vivo setting.

About the study

The research began in 2014 in collaboration with Xu Li, adjunct professor at INRS, senior scientist at the Institute of Materials Research and Engineering, and assistant adjunct professor at the National University of Singapore. Miao Wang, INRS PhD student under the joint supervision of INRS professors Vetrone and Rosei, is the lead author of “One pot synthesis of theranostic nanocapsules with lanthanide doped nanoparticles”.

The co-authors of the article published by the Royal Society of Chemistry in the journal Chemical Science are Fiorenzo Vetrone, Federico Rosei, Artiom Skripka, Ting Chen (INRS); Michael Ng and Kishmore Kumar Bhakoo (Singapore Bioimaging Consortium, Singapore Agency for Science, Technology and Research); and Alex Y. Chang (Johns Hopkins University Singapore).

The study was funded by the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada, the Canada Foundation for InnovationFonds de recherche du Québec – Nature et technologie, the Canada Excellence Research Chairs Program, the Johns Hopkins Singapore Research Fund, and the Singapore Agency for Science, Technology and Research.