New Cancer Cure Uses Nanotechnology — But Cost Could Be Cheap Thanks To Breakthrough With Algae

Jonathan Vankin

Nanotechnology has long been considered among the best hopes for a cancer cure, but now perhaps the greatest hurdle to using nanotechnology — the science of creating microscopic machines the size of a single cell, molecule or even atom — to combat the feared and deadly disease may have been overcome.

That obstacle, of course, is simply the cost of manufacturing the nanotechnology needed to infiltrate the human body to seek out and destroy individual cancer cells while leaving heathy cells and tissue unharmed. Not only would a cancer cure using artificially created nanoparticles cost so much that the medicine would likely be unavailable for widespread use, the process itself is also dangerous and environmentally destructive, requiring the use of deadly, industrial chemicals.

The chemicals not only create toxic waste that can damage the environment, but can render the nanoparticles — that is, the microscopic machines — themselves toxic to humans.

But a team led by nanotechnology researcher Nicholas Voelcker of Australia's University of South Australia in Adelaide published an article this week in the scientific journal Nature Communications in which they describe a new breakthrough that appears to solve both of those problems.

The new possible cancer cure, which in laboratory experiments killed 90 percent of cancer cells while leaving healthy human cells unaffected, uses not man-made microscopic machines — but living cells. Specifically, a type of microscopic single-cell organism called diatom algae.

In typical chemotherapy, the body of a cancer patient is essentially flooded with deadly chemicals that not only kill cancer cells, but also destroy healthy cells, causing the well-known side effects of chemotherapy such as crippling nausea, hair loss, and other serious damage.

But by genetically engineering the tiny organisms to produce an antibody that seeks out cancer cells, then loading the diatom algae with chemotherapy drugs, Voelcker says that his team's tests showed the algae delivering the drug directly to the cancer cells in a tumor, avoiding any contact with normal human cells.

"To minimize the off-target toxicity, the drugs can be hidden inside the antibody-coated nanoparticles. The antibody binds only to molecules found on cancer cells, thus delivering the toxic drug specifically to the target cells," Voelcker explained in an interview published Tuesday in the International Business Times.

"Although it is still early days, this novel drug delivery system based on a biotechnologically tailored, renewable material holds a lot of potential for the therapy of solid tumors including currently untreatable brain tumors," the Australia-based nanotechnology expert said.

Diatom algae cells are extremely common and can be found in both oceans and in bodies of fresh water — or for that matter almost anywhere where water is pooled, as any owner of a fish tank can attest. The tiny organisms can be grown naturally by photosynthesis, and at a low cost. Each algae cell measures between four and six micrometers across. One micrometer is one 10,000th of a centimeter.

The genetic engineering is Voelcker's experiments turned the algae cells into what he called "backpacks" that carry anti-cancer drugs directly to deadly cancer cells.

In addition to testing the modified algae on human cell cultures in a lab, Voelcker and his team also injected the algae-based nanotechnology cancer treatment into cancer-afflicted lab mice and found that the mice showed a reduction in the size of their tumors.

To learn more about how nanotechnology can lead to incredible advances in medicine, watch the video below, in which Voelcker delivers a talk on advances in nano medicine.

The next step for the promising cancer cure is the painstaking process of running clinical trials on actual human beings to insure not only that the innovative medicine will actually work in real-world conditions — and will not cause unacceptable side effects in living people.

Testing under those conditions is very different from testing in mice, or on cells in a lab culture, but the new, all-natural nanotechnology appears at least to hold significant potential as a safe, inexpensive and effective cancer cure.

[Featured Photo By Damián H. Zanette / Wikimedia Commons]