A primary challenge in cancer diagnosis is the development of effective molecular contrast agents for early detection of malignancies. Among the different kinds of tumors affecting human kind, mammary carcinoma is of particular importance, as it is the most common type of malignant tumor after lung cancer in adult women, and the fifth most common cause of death for cancer disease. Nanoparticles functionalized with cancer-specific targeting ligands can be used to image tumors and detect peripheral metastases. Furthermore, the outside layer should protect the core from degradation. Magnetic nanoparticles appear as a particularly promising tool for cancer diagnostics, as the associated detection technique is magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), which is already available in many clinical institutions. MRI exhibits high spatial resolution, however it requires a sensitivity enhancement, which may be provided by paramagnetic contrast agents. 

We develop novel hybrid nanoparticles consisting of a magnetic core, useful as MRI contrast agent, and an organic shell responsible for the cell receptor targeting action. In particular, these particles must fulfill several criteria in order to be recruited for use as nanodiagnostics: high resolution, accuracy and sensitivity of detection, prolonged circulation in the vasculatures and target selectivity. Such properties might be provided by using magnetic nanoparticles coated with ligands selective for protein biomarkers overexpressed by breast cancer cells, such as “Human Epidermal growth factor Receptor 2” (HER2). In addition, these particles should ideally have no toxicity and be able to interact in a physiological way with biological tissues. Finally, since membrane receptors are endocytosed as part of their normal response to ligand binding, magnetic nanoparticles have to follow physiological pathways when internalized. All these issues are appropriately addressed in the proposed research.