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September 1, 2017

Researchers develop first ‘living’ cancer treatment

Nanomachines capable of drilling holes in the membranes of individual cells could soon be a new weapon in the battle against cancer, as new research has demonstrated that the motorized molecules can effectively be used to kill off tumor cells in a mere 60 seconds.

The breakthrough, described in a report published Thursday by The Telegraph, involves the use of miniaturized, light-driven spinning molecules than can burrow their way into cells, destroying them outright or delivering drugs that could be used to help cure various types of cancer.

In an experiment conducted at Durham University in the UK, researchers demonstrated that the nanomachines were able to break through the outer membrane of a prostate cancer cell in one to three minutes time. Once it did so, the cell died immediately, the researchers reported in a paper published online earlier this week in the journal Nature.

“We are moving towards realizing our ambition to be able to use light-activated nanomachines to target cancer cells such as those in breast tumors and skin melanomas, including those that are resistant to existing chemotherapy,” Dr. Robert Pal, a research fellow at the Durham Department of Chemistry and the university’s Biophysical Sciences Institute, said in a statement.

“Once developed, this approach could provide a potential step change in non-invasive cancer treatment and greatly improve survival rates and patient welfare globally,” he added. The method may provide new hope to those suffering from cancers resistant to currently-available treatments.

‘Unlikely’ that cells could become resistant to the technology

As part of their research, Dr. Pal and his colleagues created single-molecule nanomachines with rotors that were activated by ultraviolet light. Once switched on, those rotors were able to spin at speeds of two to three million rotations per second, thus enabling them to drill into cells.

The tests revealed that the molecular machines were able to locate target cells, but unless they were activated using ultraviolet light, they remained on the surface of those cells and were not able to drill through the membrane. Once activated using UV light, however, the nanomachines quickly drilled through the cellular membrane, killing off said cell in one to three minutes.

Their motor was inspired by previous work completed by Nobel laureate Bernard Feringa, who in 2016 won the Nobel Prize for Chemistry for his work on molecular machines. It uses a motor made out of a paddle-like chain of atoms that move in a specific direction when provided energy – in this case, a UV light source, which causes the motor to spin and act as a drill.

“We thought it might be possible to attach these nanomachines to the cell membrane and then turn them on to see what happened,” Study co-author James Tour of Rice University explained in a press release. His team found that the motors could either tunnel through the cellular membrane to deliver drugs or other payloads, or disrupt the membrane itself, thus eliminating the target.

“These nanomachines are so small that we could park 50,000 of them across the diameter of a human hair, yet they have the targeting and actuating components combined in that diminutive package to make molecular machines a reality for treating disease,” Tour noted, adding that it was “unlikely” that cells would ever be able to develop a resistance to the nanomachines.

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Image credit: Novartis