Nifty nano-engineering knocks out cancer

22 June 2008


Scientists have developed a nanoscale magic bullet to selectively destroy cancer cells whilst leaving healthy cells unharmed.

Carbon nanotube animationEllen Vitetta and her team from the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Centre, writing in this week's PNAS, have engineered carbon nanotubes, which are molecular straws thousands of times smaller than a human hair, to target tumours and then focus a destructive laser beam onto them.  The researchers began by making a suspension of the carbon nanotubes, which they then coated with antibodies that could recognise certain chemical markers on the surfaces of cancerous white blood cells.

The result were carbon nanotubes that were peppered with antibodies that would lock the nanotubes onto malignant white cells, but not onto healthy cells.  The team found that cancer cells targeted by the nanotubes could then by destroyed by firing pulses of laser light at near-infrared (NIR) wavelengths.  NIR laser penetrates tissue very well and passes harmlessly through healthy cells.  But the nanotubes soaked up the laser energy and unleashed it on the cells they stuck to, destroying the cell.

In experiments in the dish the team were able to show that incubating their nanotubes with healthy cells led to the laser having no effect on the viability of the cells.  But when the experiment was repeated with cancerous cells only a tiny percentage were left alive.  If the team can now show that the technique is safe and effective for use in the body, which is their next step, then it could help cancer sufferers to avoid the side effects caused by the indiscriminate harm done by radiotherapy and chemotherapy.


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