One of the most promising applications in the emerging field of nanomedicine is cancer treatment. The ability to target individual cells provides safer and more effective treatment than current approaches like chemotherapy in which healthy cells become collateral damage in the effort to knock out cancerous tumors. This potential has again been demonstrated by scientists at Rice University who have developed a way to "blow up" individual diseased cells using lasers and gold nanoparticles.

"Single-cell targeting is one of the most touted advantages of nanomedicine, and our approach delivers on that promise with a localized effect inside an individual cell," said Rice physicist Dmitri Lapotko, the lead researcher on the project. "The idea is to spot and treat unhealthy cells early, before a disease progresses to the point of making people extremely ill."

The technique involves making "nanobubbles" by zapping gold nanoparticles inside cells with lasers. Being visible under a microscope, these bright bubbles can be used to diagnose sick cells or, when the power of the laser is increased, destroy the cells.

"The bubbles work like a jackhammer," Lapotko said.

In 2009 the approach was tested on arterial plaque. Gold nanoparticles were sprayed on the plaque and using a laser, researchers were able to blast through the deposits that block arteries (see video below).

The current study is looking at leukemia cells and cells from head and neck cancers. In this research antibodies have been attached to the nanoparticles so they target only the cancer cells.

The research resulted from collaboration between Rice and the Lykov Institute of the Academy of Science of Belarus, which recently established the US-Belarus Research Lab of Fundamental and Biomedical Nanophotonics.