Researchers have developed light-activated nanomachines that can kill cancer cells by drilling through the cell membrane.
Developed by a team at Rice University, Durham University (UK) and North Carolina State University, the single-molecule nanomotors are about one-billionth of a meter wide and spin at 2 to 3 million rotations per second.
The machines are so tiny that 50,000 of them together is still about the width of a single strand of human hair. Each machine is engineered to be sensitive to a protein located on a specific type of cell, which helped them find their target.
The researchers used motors based on work by Nobel laureate Bernard Feringa, who won the prize for chemistry in 2016.
The motor itself is a paddle-like chain of atoms that can be prompted to move in a single direction when supplied with energy. Properly mounted as part of the cell-targeting molecule, the motor can be made to spin when activated by a light source.
“We thought it might be possible to attach these nanomachines to the cell membrane and then turn them on to see what happened,” said James Tour, a researcher at Rice University who was one of the leads of the study.
“We are moving towards realizing our ambition to be able to use light-activated nanomachines to target cancer cells such as those in breast tumors and skin melanomas, including those that are resistant to existing chemotherapy,” Dr. Robert Pal of Durham University said.
The molecules must be triggered by ultraviolet light or they will merely attach to the surface of the cell without attacking it.
Besides being used as a weapon to destroy tumor membranes, the nanomachines can also be used to carry therapeutic agents to cells.
This technique would save the millions of normal healthy cells that are killed by the traditional chemotherapy agents when they attempt to kill the cancer cells.
The study was published in the journal Nature.