For decades, scientists have envisioned creating nanodevices that would, for example, be able to travel through the human circulatory system tracking down and destroying cancer cells and tumors. In a chemistry lab in NC State’s College of Physical and Mathematical Sciences, professors Dan Feldheim and Stefan Franzen are turning that vision into a literal dose of reality.

Feldheim and Franzen, along with five chemistry graduate students, have developed a method for making nanoscopic polymer capsules that can identify cancer cells and deliver DNA fragments with destruction instructions to the cell’s nucleus. Having been proven in the laboratory, and soon to enter animal trials, the discovery could provide cancer patients with more effective intravenous treatments without today’s cruel side effects.

Keys to the capsule’s effectiveness are its selectivity for cancer cells and its ability to get to their DNA before the cell pumps the therapeutic agent back out. Typical chemotherapy drugs attack not only cancer cells but all fast-growing cells in the body, such as those in hair follicles, bone marrow and stomach lining—causing baldness, immune deficiencies, and nausea—often making the cure worse than the disease. “There are available cancer drugs that work,” says Feldheim. “The problem is in targeting the drug delivery.”

“We’ve learned a lot from viruses,” he explains. “They have certain proteins on their coatings that allow them to find a specific cell, unlock the door and go right into the cell nucleus. We’ve attached to our capsule coating small peptide fragments from virus proteins that can detect and enter cancer cells while leaving other types of cells alone.”

Funded by the National Science Foundation and the North Carolina Biotechnology Center, Feldheim and Franzen are working with researchers at the UNC Lineberger Cancer Center and the Duke Comprehensive Cancer Center. The UNC and Duke collaborators are providing the DNA fragments for NC State’s proprietary delivery technology, and will eventually provide test therapeutics for other diseases as well. Feldheim believes that intracellular sensors could be positioned in specific cells through the same method, perhaps affording earlier cancer detection.

For more information, please visit