engineering careers  German scientists kill cancer cells with nano-sized copper compounds
engineering careers  German scientists kill cancer cells with nano-sized copper compounds

A team of German scientists have succeeded in killing tumour cells in mice using nano-sized copper compounds together with immunotherapy. Best of all, after the therapy, the cancer did not return.

The team – made up from scientists from KU Leuven, the University of Bremen, the Leibniz Institute of Materials Engineering, and the University of Ioannina – managed to create a pioneering new treatment to kill tumour cells in mice by using nano-sized copper compounds together with existing immunotherapy treatments.

While immunotherapy is proving a major step forward in treating cancer ( by using your bodies own immune system to fight the disease ) it isn’t always successful.

The team wanted to find out what else tumours are sensitive to. They found that a copper oxide nanoparticles—a compound composed of copper and oxygen would become toxic to cancer cells once they were dissolved inside the tumour.

The problem was how to deliver these to the tumour without affecting healthy cells. The team cracked this by using nanoparticles made from iron oxide.

Professor Stefaan Soenen and Dr. Bella B. Manshian from the Department of Imaging and Pathology, who worked together on the study explained this saying that “any material that you create at a nanoscale has slightly different characteristics than its normal-sized counterpart [but] if we would ingest metal oxides in large quantities, they can be dangerous, but at a nanoscale and at controlled, safe, concentrations, they can actually be beneficial.”

What the team found is that if they treated cancer using only nanoparticles cancer would return. However, if also used immunotherapy the cooper components would assist the bodies own immune cells fighting the foreign cancer cells.

The treatment also avoided using chemotherapy which has significant side effects for patients.

It was by using this combo of nanoparticles and immunotherapy that enabled the team to kill the tumours entirely. The team also found that when they injected tumour back into the mice (after the treatment was completed) that they well immediately targetted and eliminated by the immune system allowing the treatment to work as a vaccine.

The team think the treatment should be suitable for around 60% of known cancers. These would include breast, ovarian, colon and lung cancers.

The next step will be to look at other metal nanoparticles and match them to different types of cancers. This should allow the creation of a database of effective treatments before moving onto testing with human tissue and cancer samples.


Published as “Model-Based Nanoengineered Pharmacokinetics of Iron-Doped Copper Oxide for Nanomedical Applications” in Angewandte Chemie International Edition (2019). DOI: 10.1002/anie.201912312