Nano Drug Delivery for Cancer, Dermatology, and Pain

January 10. 2019. 6 mins read

They say good things come in small packages. Like Herve Villechaize, the French actor who played Tattoo on Fantasy Island. The idiom also applies to drugs. No, we’re not talking about the little envelope that Nick at work slips you in the breakroom every other Friday. This is about nano-drug delivery – using nanoparticles to improve the efficacy of existing drugs or to develop novel nanomedicine-based therapies.

Examples of Nano Drug Delivery Applications

Earlier this month we wrote about the topic of nanomedicine and how it is being applied to help diagnose conditions as diverse as cancer and Alzheimer’s disease. But the main application of nanomedicine has been in nano-drug delivery. The Food and Drug Administration has approved more than 60 applications for drugs containing nanomaterials dating back to the 1970s.

In some cases, the nanoparticles help improve the absorption or effectiveness of a drug or therapy, like radiation treatment for cancer. That’s the case for a company called Nanobiotix (FP:NANO) that we covered before. In fact, Nanobiotix just announced a new collaboration with the MD Anderson Cancer Center on clinical development of a drug that destroys cancer cells when activated by radiotherapy, before kicking the immune system into action for clean-up duty. This is one common application: using nanoparticles to find malignant cells and then slap a bullseye on them, helping more conventional therapies like radiation work more precisely.  

At other times, nanoparticles act like a cross between a molecular-sized pharmacy and Grubhub, a nano-drug delivery service that transports the treatment in novel ways. For example, Blue Willow, a startup we covered in our 15 Nanotechnology Companies Getting Funding in 2018, uses what it calls nanoemulsion technology to deliver an adjuvant against viruses as diverse as the flu and HIV.

Nanoparticles can also be used in even more novel ways, such as to neutralize a virus or poison. The New York Times recently reported how one lab is creating polymer-coated nanoparticles that can bind with and neutralize snake bites. Way back in 2014, we came across an over-the-counter company called NanoViricides attempting to do something similar with different types of viruses.

Nano Drug Delivery Companies

Now, let’s take a look at a range of companies that we haven’t covered before developing small solutions for big problems that fall into this broad category of nano-drug delivery.

Nano Drug Delivery for Cancer Treatment

Cancer is public enemy No. 1 for many nano-drug delivery companies. That’s partly because scientists have found ways to create nanoparticles that can more easily find and bind to cancer cells for various therapies.

Click for company websiteTake Cristal Therapeutics, a Dutch company founded in 2011 that has absolutely nothing to do with crystal healing therapy. Instead, the startup has raised about $27.5 million in grants and venture capital for its nano-drug delivery platform called CriPec, which, as you might imagine involves some brainy PhDs doing some serious hocus pocus in the lab to custom design nanoparticles for delivering drugs for various purposes. For the DIYers out there, here’s a diagram to help you get started:

The Cristal Therapeutics platform.
Credit: Cristal Therapeutics.

Cristal Therapeutics’ lead nanomedicine encapsulates a standard chemotherapy drug in its proprietary nanoparticle to destroy solid tumors. The key thing to understand is that the nanoparticles will accumulate more readily in the cancer tissue rather than healthy tissue, potentially making it safer to use.

Founded in 2013, Vancouver-based Sitka Biopharma has raised about $4.3 million in at least two rounds of disclosed funding. Sitka Biopharma’s nano-drug delivery particle is constructed out of something called hyperbranched polyglycerol that reportedly makes it better at reaching difficult-to-penetrate tissue. First up is the same chemotherapy drug being used by Cristal Therapeutics – Docetaxel – for treating bladder cancer.

Click for company websiteA startup spun out of Cornell University called Elucida Oncology is attempting to commercialize a new nanodelivery system from ultra-small silica nanoparticles they have dubbed Cornell dots, or C-dots, that the founders invented more than a dozen years ago. The nanoparticle does it all: diagnostics, drug delivery, and it can even help with surgery. Regarding the latter, the C-dots carry a near-infrared dye that surgeons can use to cut out tumors in real-time:

Cancer surgery using nanoparticle dye.
Hopefully, you’re not squeamish. Credit: Elucida Oncology

For other applications, the C-dots can eventually leave the patient through the rear exit of the body.

Nano Drug Delivery for Dermatology

Click for company websiteIf you travel long enough in third-world countries, you’ll pick up all sorts of new microfauna that can cause outbreaks of various virality. That’s why we never shower without wearing a pair of flip-flops. For those with intractable fungal nail infections and other deleterious dermatological conditions, a startup out of the UK called Blueberry Therapeutics may soon have a cure for you using their nano-drug delivery platform. The company has raised about $17 million, including a roughly $13 million Series A last August. Here’s another chart for the DIY biochemists out there that shows how Blueberry Therapeutics’ nanopolymer system works on the simplest possible level:

Diagram shows nano delivery system.
We’re guessing that they’ve left out a few steps here. Credit: Blueberry Therapeutics

The company announced it had conducted a successful clinical trial late last year on an antifungal drug for onychomycosis (fungal nail infection) and concomitant tinea pedis (athletes foot).

Click for company websiteZylo Therapeutics out of Greenville, South Carolina, combines a couple of our favorite topics – nanotechnology and cannabis. The startup has reportedly raised $1.3 million and was trying to convince investors to hand over another $4.7 million last year, according to local media outlet Upstate Business Journal. The startup says its researchers have already spent 10 years and $10 million to develop the Nanopod delivery system, which uses hydrogel-derived nanoparticles for topical treatments. The intent is not to develop a new overpriced espresso machine, but to create lotions or creams that can improve the efficacy of certain compounds, releasing the treatment over 24 hours.

Nanopods can really get underneath your skin.
Nanopods can really get underneath your skin. Credit: Zylo Therapeutics

And, yes, one of those selected compounds includes cannabinoids. Zylo Therapeutics says its cannabinoid-loaded Nanopods have been shown to reduce the size and severity of skin lesions associated with lupus. Other compounds include nitric oxide, which has shown to kill acne-related bacteria, and curcumin, a popular supplement with the alt health crowd that has also shown promise in killing the bacteria involved in dangerous staph infections.

Nano Drug Delivery for NSAIDs

We’ve written before about America’s very expensive opioid addiction. There’s one company – well, actually two – that hopes to disrupt that business model by developing nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs called NSAIDs using nanotechnology.

A comparison between two different sized particles.
Smaller is better in some cases, like when you sit in economy class on the airplane. Credit: Iroko Pharmaceuticals

Philadelphia-based Iroko Pharmaceuticals, founded in 2007, has raised $215 million through debt financing to develop a line of low-dose prescription painkillers. Toward that goal, Iroko has licensed the patented technology of another Philadelphia area startup called iCeutica ($5.1 million raised to date) that has developed SoluMatrix, a process that pulverizes drug molecules into nano-sized particles. That enables lower doses of the drug to be used because the smaller size is more readily absorbed by the body faster. The FDA has approved three painkillers from Iroko.

Nano Drug Delivery with Lasers

Most of us could probably agree with Dr. Evil on a couple of things. First, there’s nothing better than a freshly shorn scrotum. Second, everything works better with lasers. A medical technology company called Masimo (MASI), a $6 billion corporation better known for its line of patient monitoring devices, has backed nanomedicine research that draws on Soviet Union-era laser weapon technology to destroy cancer cells. The Guardian did a great deep dive into the backstory of this development, but the interesting thing for us is that once the nanoparticles cluster inside a cancer cell, a short laser pulse is delivered. The nanoparticles heat up, expands, and collapses – a phenomenon known as a plasmonic nanobubble, which sounds like the excessive-pleasure machine in Barbarella.

The epilogue to the story, however, is that the Soviet physicist behind the research, a Belarusian named Dmitri Lapotko, has been repeatedly accused of data falsification, and the whole venture seems to have disappeared from the headlines since 2017.


Nanotechnology is what first inspired us to start writing about emerging technology, beginning about 15 years ago. By some measurements, we’re still waiting for it to fulfill its promises. (Graphene, anyone?) But our ability now to work on the molecular level and to create molecular machines through synthetic biology is already revolutionizing many industries. The potential of nanomedicine and nano-drug delivery to help treat cancer and other diseases seems tantalizingly close, but a real payday for most companies is probably still pretty far away.

See, good things really do come in small packages, Nick.


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