Anyone who has gone through cancer treatment, or known someone who has, has seen how detrimental the side effects can be. There are medicines to offset its side-effects, but unfortunately, many people can’t take them.
The problem is that current treatments like chemo and radiotherapy target both healthy and malignant tissue. Researchers have therefore been looking for alternatives ways to target cancer cells that leave the healthy ones untouched. However, cancer is such a complex problem, it makes the task incredibly tricky. Photodynamic therapy is one approach. Here, an inert drug is usually inserted inside a tumour and then activated by light or a laser. This destroys the cancer whilst minimising collateral effects.
Another method that is just starting to be explored is nanotechnology. Scientists have developed very small, light-activated nanomachines that can drill into targeted diseased cells and kill them within minutes. This novel method could eliminate the suffering cancer patients go through nowadays, making the healing process a much more bearable experience.
The key to these nanomachines is a paddle-like rotor. The motor is a series of three rings of carbon atoms which start rotating 2 to 3 million times per second when hit by ultraviolet light. At the same time, the sides of the motor feature arms of carbon, nitrogen, and oxygen that extend and selectively grip the surface of the cell.
The single-molecule nanomotors are about one-billionth of a meter wide. The machines are so small that 50,000 of them bundled together only equates to the width of a strand of human hair.
Besides its potent drilling capability, each nanomachine carries a certain peptide with it to guarantee cancer’s death. Each machine is engineered to be sensitive to a protein located on a specific type of cell, which helps them find their target. Without an ultraviolet trigger, the nanomachines can still find the target. However, they remain on the surface and are unable to penetrate into the cells. Once you add light, however, the motors quickly drill through the membranes.
So far, tests on human and animal cells have been successful. When the nanomachines were released on cancerous prostate cells, it took between one to three minutes for the drill to penetrate each of the cell’s membranes to kill it. However, years of further research lie ahead before introducing these nano-drills into clinical trials. First up: bacteria and fish! So even if everything goes successfully, this technology is not super close.
Hopefully, the nanomachines will help target cancers like breast tumours and melanomas that resist existing chemotherapy.
Once established, this approach could be a potential step change in non-invasive cancer treatment and significantly increase survival rates and patient welfare globally. Besides killing cancer cells, these machines could be used, in the future, to deliver medicines very precisely, promising revolutionary new treatments. Could this lead to a kind of ideal world, free of disease?