An international team, including bio-engineers from Durham University, have used motorised molecules driven by light to drill holes in the membranes of cancer cells – killing them.
The new technique could mean new therapeutic methods to bring medicines directly into the cells or allow doctors to target and kill specific cancer cells.
These new tiny spinning molecules would be driven by light and can spin so quickly that they are able to burrow their way through cell linings once they are activated.
The international team included bio-engineers working out of Durham University partnering with researchers from Rice and North Carolina State universities in the USA. In one test were able to demonstrate nanomachines taking between one and three minutes to break through the outer membrane of prostate cancer cell, killing it instantly.
The ‘motor’ is a rotor-like chain of atoms that can be prompted to move in one direction, causing the molecule to rotate at high speed.
The fact that ultraviolet light is required to trigger the drilling mechanism should allow precision in which cells are targeted. Without the trigger, the motor molecules can still locate target cells but will just sit harmlessly on their surfaces.
We are moving towards realising our ambition to be able to use light-activated nanomachines to target cancer cells such as those in breast tumours and skin melanomas, including those that are resistant to existing chemotherapy … Once developed, this approach could provide a potential step change in non-invasive cancer treatment and greatly improve survival rates and patient welfare globally. Dr Pal – who collaborated with research teams in the USA led by Professor James Tour at Rice University in Houston, Texas, and Assistant Professor Gufeng Wang at North Carolina State University
The researchers are now moving onto experiments in microorganisms and small fish. They will then expand the trials to include rodents ahead of clinical trials in humans if animal testing proves successful.
Published as “Molecular machines open cell membranes” by Víctor García-López, Fang Chen, Lizanne G. Nilewski, Guillaume Duret, Amir Aliyan, Anatoly B. Kolomeisky, Jacob T. Robinson, Gufeng Wang, Robert Pal & James M. Tour in Nature 548