SNHS Spotlight: Communicating with Cancer Cells

Cancer cells can deteriorate tissue, multiply uncontrollably, and spread to the entire body. By 2018, there were approximately 18.1 million cancer cases, a statistic expected to rise to 29.5 million in twenty years. However, researchers at the Advanced Science Research Center at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York (CUNY ASRC) have recently asked questions surrounding how to drastically reduce these numbers by finding how cancer cells can be specifically targeted. Rein Ulijn, the director of the CUNY ASRC Nanoscience Initiative, states, “Through this research, we wanted to determine whether it’s possible to make use of relatively simple peptide design to create nanoparticles that could produce robust self-assembly in biological media and have an impact on cancer cells.” The nanoparticle that he suggests is roughly the size of 1/1000th of a human hair, made of a small peptide chain of amino acids. 

So, in the search to specifically communicate with cancer cells, the researchers designed tiny nanoparticles with the possibility to create drug-free cancer treatments for patients. These nanoparticles are equipped with the abilities to assemble themselves when they identify dangerous cancer cells and send messages to decrease the speed at which they grow and metastasize. Lead author and graduate student of the university, Richard Huang Ph. D. explains that the nanoparticles are “able to reduce the cancer cells’ metabolic activity.” In other words, the self-assembling particles can significantly slow the rate at which energy-producing chemical reactions can take place. 

Beyond this, these nanoparticles are able to specifically attack cancer cells, meaning that tissue containing healthy cells surrounding them cannot be harmed or destroyed. This contrasts

with some other forms of cancer treatment such as chemotherapy which can impact the healthy cells within a person’s body in the attempt to eradicate cancer. When cancerous cells metastasize throughout the body, they release an excess amount of an enzyme called MMP-9 (matrix metalloproteinase-9), which is critical to the breakdown of the collagen that makes up the structure of healthy tissue. By using this as a marker for dangerous tumors, the researchers designed nanoparticles that could gather in large groups near these cancer cells and precisely target them. 

Using a process called confocal reflection microscopy, they were able to precisely map how the nanoparticles interacted with cancerous cells. When large particle groups were near, they would be engulfed by cancer cells, ultimately distorting the shapes of cancer cells and causing a reduced ability to function and multiply. 

With this use of nanotechnology, cancer’s threat within the body could be stopped. While the research for these types of nanoparticles is in very early stages, the implications of the experiments can be useful for patients who cannot take drug-induced cancer treatments, such as from having a quickly-growing metastatic cancer or having built a drug resistance. As more experimentation and replication are done, the researchers at CUNY can expect that their nanoparticles and similar biotechnology will have vast effects within the world of medicine.

By: Christiane Wahba ‘22, SNHS Member 

Sources: h-cancer-cells/

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