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Nano-robotic scalpel swarm shreds brain cancer cells from the inside

Published in Nanomachines Development.

When it comes to fighting the deadly brain cancer known as glioblastoma, options are very much limited. This led a Canadian research team to take a novel approach. They tricked cancer cells into taking up carbon nanotubes, and they then shredded those cells by spinning the tubes using magnetic force. The treatment in mice shrunk tumor size and extended the rodents’ lives, a finding that has the researchers hopeful for a similar result in humans.

Glioblastoma tumors grow quickly, invade local brain tissue, and develop resistance to chemotherapy and radiation treatments, making them very difficult to fight. Also, any left-behind cancer cells tend to return with a vengeance, although efforts are underway to keep that from happening.

Building on previous work, researchers at the University of Toronto Robotics Institute and The Hospital for Sick Children (SickKids), filled carbon nanotubes with iron oxide particles to make them magnetic. Then they coated them with an antibody that allowed the tubes to bind with a protein on the outside of glioblastoma cells. After binding, the tubes were ingested by the cancer cells.

Next, by activating a magnetic field near the cancer cells, the tubes were made to spin, wreaking havoc to the internal structure of the cells – particularly to their mitochondria, which fundamentally provides cellular energy. In effect, the tubes acted like thousands of mini scalpels that sliced up the cancer cells from the inside.