A group of international researchers from Germany and Australia created a genetically engineered diatom algae that can mimic the porous material needed to transport nanoparticle cancer medicine to malignant cells. The diatom algae has a diameter of only four to six micrometers, which is ten times smaller than a human hair's width.

Lab tests also showed the tiny genetically engineered diatom algae are capable of killing 90 percent of cancer cells without hurting healthy ones. Findings also showed its efficiency in treating tumors in lab mice while leaving the rest of the body unharmed.

Developing safe, targeted chemotherapy that only assaults cancer cells is one of cancer medicine's biggest challenges. Side effects of chemo treatment is prevalent in cancer patients, which are manifested in the bone marrow, nails and hair follicles.

"By genetically engineering diatom algae - tiny, unicellular, photosynthesizing algae with a skeleton made of nanoporous silica, we are able to produce an antibody-binding protein on the surface of their shells," said Nico Voelcker who led the study. Voelcker is an expert on nanomedicine.

These drug-carrying diatom algae only connect with molecules that can only be found in cancer cells, to which they can transport the drug, making them capable of targeted chemotherapy. It is vital to create biocompatible, natural and biodegradable drug carriers, and the developed diatom algae meet these requirements, as they only need light and water to grow and break down naturally when exposed to the elements.

When infused with a specific antibody, these genetically modified diatom algae can be coaxed to target cancer cells alone, leaving healthy human cells unharmed.

The diatom alga acts like a backpack that carries drugs directly into deadly cancer cells. Voelcker and his team tested the diatom alga's capability by injecting it into lab mice with cancerous tumors. Findings showed a reduction in the size of the tumors.

While the research is still in its early stage, the novel delivery system of drugs using biotechnologically-made materials is showing huge potential in future treatments of solid tumors.

The researchers published their study in the Nature Communications journal on Nov. 10.

Photo: Ed Uthman | Flickr 

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