However, recent scientific advances have changed the game. Bind’s nanoparticles, for example, are programmed to reach the right spot using targeting molecules that recognize specific proteins linked to disease on the surface of cells.
They also have a stealth covering that shields them from the immune system, in order to minimize adverse reactions.
Since January, Amgen, Pfizer and AstraZeneca have all signed up to use Bind’s technology, which comes from work originally carried out in Langer’s lab.
And Bind is not the only game in town. Another approach, using tiny particles of gold as drug carriers, is being explored in a deal that AstraZeneca signed in December last year with CytImmune.
“Anything you can do to improve targeting of tumors rather than normal tissue — whether that is through an armed antibody or nanoparticle approach — increases the chance of success,” said Susan Galbraith, who leads AstraZeneca’s oncology research.
The work remains at an early stage and Peer says all the novel carriers will have to be studied closely for potential toxicity.
However, experience with liposomes is good and versions of gold nanoparticles have also been used safely for many years to treat rheumatoid arthritis.
Injecting patients with gold may sound like a pricey option, but with thousands of nanoparticles fitting into the width of a human hair, the amount of metal used is tiny. Gold, unlike some other metals, is not toxic and has been used in various medical treatments for many years without harmful effects.
Bind chief executive Scott Minick also thinks his polymer technology will have cost advantages over expensive antibody drugs.
Further out, Kostas Kostarelos, professor of nanomedicine at University College London, has high hopes for graphene — a one-atom-thick form of carbon. His team is currently working with graphene nanomaterials in pre-clinical experiments.
“We will see parallel development of different materials, each offering something different therapeutically,” he said.
Other venture-backed nanomedicine firms include Cerulean Pharma, whose technology has made a highly potent cancer drug tolerable, but which recently had disappointing results in a clinical study, and two companies looking at new vaccines.
Selecta Biosciences has a deal on food allergy vaccines with Sanofi, while Liquidia Technologies is allied with GlaxoSmithKline on vaccines and inhaled products.
Langer is convinced more Big Pharma companies will think small in future.
“You can be sure others will jump on the bandwagon sooner or later. That doesn’t mean they might not jump off for a little bit too — but they will jump back on. These technologies are here to stay,” Langer said.