Looking To Mussels To Cure Cancer – And Much More
Michael Harper for redOrbit.com — Your Universe Online
In all advances in science and technology, researchers must first look back before looking forward. And there´s something about the natural shape and form of living creatures which have long been residents of Earth which cannot be improved upon, only mimicked.
Hongbo Zeng, a chemical and materials engineering researcher at the University of Alberta, has been studying one creature in particular to find clues for new drugs to fight cancer. Building upon his previous research on mussels, Zeng has now measured exactly how much force and energy is required for these bivalves to attach themselves onto slippery and wet surfaces. This ability has long been one of the natural world´s many unsolved mysteries, but Zeng´s research has uncovered the mechanisms responsible for this adhesion and is opening the doors for other researchers to apply these findings in the medical field.
In 2010, Zeng unlocked the Mussels´ sticky mystery when he discovered a wet adhesion mechanism which lets these Mussels stick nearly anywhere. With this mechanism unlocked, Zeng believed new adhesive products — like biodegradable glue and industrial-strength superglue that works in salt water — could be developed.
“The cuticle of the mussel’s foot has a self-healing chemical process through the interactions between metal ions and proteins,” Zeng explained in a 2010 press conference.
Last month, Zeng published another in a long line of mussel-inspired papers which described the amount of molecular force the mussel exerts in order to cling to boats, rocks and piers.
This adhering mechanism is called a Cation-pi interaction and is shared by more than just mussels. Zeng has even found this mechanism occurs in some non-biological systems, including Alberta´s oil sands. Though mussels and oil sands are quite different from one another, they do share some common chemistry.
“When the tar sands are heated to separate the oil from sands in water, we now have a better understanding of how and why oil molecules can remain stuck to particles of sand in a complex water environment,” said Zeng in a statement explaining his new findings.
“Understanding and measuring the mechanism of how and why some sand particles remain stuck to oil molecules could help for a more efficient cleanup of water used in the oil sands production process.”
Understanding this nano-level reaction between molecules could also help other researchers understand biological phenomena as diverse as how salt is received by cells or how nicotine affects the human brain.
“Nicotine molecules bond to certain brain receptors, and understanding the interaction energy required could lead to developing pharmaceutical methods of preventing the undesirable effect of nicotine on the brain,” explained Zeng.
These developments could go beyond developing a drug to curb nicotine cravings. Zeng says he hopes this new mussel-inspired understanding could help pharmaceutical researchers develop a precise, faster-acting cancer drug.
“Drugs designed to target specific cells could be designed for faster, more lasting bonds with cancer cells, and that would increase the efficiency of the patient´s treatment.”
As one might expect, the results of unlocking these nano-level processes has excited some of Zeng´s colleagues. His paper was published last month in the German journal Angewandte Chemie (“Applied Chemistry”). When the publishers read his findings, they bestowed upon it the title of “hot paper,” a classification which, according to the University of Alberta, they reserve for only the most important papers in their field.