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In the future, treating brain disease may require just a sniff

Engineers at Washington University used locusts to test a nasal spray that could be used to treat brain cancer and other diseases.
Washington University

Washington University researchers are developing a device that could vastly improve how doctors treat cancer and other diseases in the brain. 

Delivering drugs to the brain is complicated because the three-pound organ is shielded by a complex network of blood vessels, called the blood-brain barrier, that keeps out foreign substances. However, the fortress of vessels works so well that it's challenging to provide medication through a pill or an injection.

The Wash U device could change everything. It would deliver tiny particles by nasal spray.

"When we want to deliver something in, it takes a long time," said Ramesh Raliya, a researcher at Wash U's School of Engineering and Applied Science. 

Raliya and his colleagues are testing the use of a nasal spray that could deliver nano-sized particles, which are a billionth of a meter, to the brain from 30 minutes to an hour. They've tested it on locusts, which Raliya said have blood-brain barriers similar to the ones humans possess. 

Nanotechnology, used to develop a large variety of consumer products, is the manipulation of material on a molecular scale. Raliya created an aerosol containing gold nanoparticles that were tagged with florescent markers. Researchers then exposed the aerosol to the locusts' antennae and tracked the movement of the tagged particles their brains.

Raliya said researchers expect to test the tool on mice and other animal subjects by the end of 2017, with the hope of making it available on the market by 2019.

Follow Eli Chen on Twitter: @StoriesByEli

Eli is the science and environment reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.

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