Medical

Webs of molecular fibers kill cancer cells from the inside out

Webs of molecular fibers kill ...
An artist's render of cancer cells with a "web" growing inside them
An artist's render of cancer cells with a "web" growing inside them
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An artist's render of cancer cells with a "web" growing inside them
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An artist's render of cancer cells with a "web" growing inside them

Researchers at the Max Planck Institute have demonstrated an intriguing new way to fight cancer by introducing molecular fibers into cells. While harmless to healthy cells, once these fibers encounter the specific environment of cancer cells they assemble into webs, activating the tumor’s self-destruct sequence.

Currently, our best weapons against cancer are radiation and chemotherapy, and while reasonably effective they both act more like a shotgun blast than a sniper shot, harming healthy cells at the same time. That causes all sorts of side effects to a patient’s health.

As such, a key avenue of cancer research involves finding ways to specifically target tumors without harming the healthy cells around them. One of the best ways to do that is to take advantage of the unique environment inside cancer cells, and that’s what the new study has tried to do.

"In cancer tissue, the environment is much more acidic than in normal tissue," says David Ng, lead researcher on the study. "In addition, much more highly reactive oxidative molecules are found within the cancer cells due to the cancer's increased metabolic activity - and we take advantage of that.”

To do so, the team created molecular fibers that would theoretically be introduced to a patient’s body, entering both healthy and cancerous cells. These fibers are made up of sequences of peptides that cleave and connect in different patterns based on the environment they encounter. While harmless to healthy cells, they turn lethal when they encounter the features that mark cancer tissue – acidity and more reactive oxidative molecules.

Once exposed to that environment, the fibers begin to join together, forming a web-like structure that grows inside the cancer cell itself. The team says that these webs are stable enough to physically deform the cell, to the point where they trigger programmed cell death.

The researchers point out that this method leaves healthy cells alone, and attacks the cancer in a way that it can’t defend itself against. That bypasses a common problem with chemical attacks, which many tumors develop resistance to.

In tests on lab cultures of cancer cells, the team demonstrated that the method was able to kill the tumors in around four hours.

It’s still very early days for the research, with the method yet to be tested in animals, let alone humans. In the meantime, the team is working on making the process more precise and developing a way to degrade the webs after the cancer cells have died off.

The research was published in the Journal of the American Chemical Society.

Source: Max Planck Institute

8 comments
guzmanchinky
WHY are these not tried on people who are going to die for certain and completely willing to sign anything to give a 4 hour cure a shot?!?
Signguy
Yeah, can't make any money on it so it will never see the light of day. Guaranteed by Greed.
paul314
Cancer cells that are growing more slowly might masquerade as regular cells, but that might be OK.
Gwyllim
I wonder if I should contact the Institute and tell them that fresh flaxseed oil and cottage cheese blended together cause apoptosis in cancer cells too?🤔
Worzel
''... forming a web-like structure that grows inside the cancer cell itself. '' ----What happens to them when the cancer cell has died? How does the body expunge foreign matter, that it has no evolutionary experience of? Could these dead blobs cause a reaction in the body that would be akin to cancer? A lot more to do yet, so I wont hold my breath while waiting for anything positive to appear.
drBill
I took a quick read of the abstract and article and think these people have thought of something really novel. Don't poison the cancer, let/help it kill itself. The race for survival is not to the swift, but to the sure, and I 'sure' hope "cancer" never figures out how to transmit itself and we humans can exterminate it while it's still in the larval stage on the geological time scale. There may not even be an "it".
Meantime, on a serious note and more on-topic, I see their approach novel as a synthetic approach to enabling human intervention to build a scaffold like the mycogenera (fungi, rhizomes) do in consuming insects. They don't worry about the waste products, but physicians must. I did not recognize any of their intake processes as objectionable per se.
sidmehta
"...the team is working on making the process more precise and developing a way to degrade the webs after the cancer cells have died off." Well that's the most important part - don't leave this behind to cause other problems we can't foresee today. Keep it clean.
Ralf Biernacki
@guzmanchinky: Because you are legally *not allowed* to sign away your right to sue; or more precisely, any such waiver will not be respected by the courts. Thus, even if a terminally ill person signs a waiver for experimental treatment, after this treatment fails (or even succeeds, but has side effects) the patient's family can easily get rich by suing the doctor and the pharma company for millions in damages. And the courts have a record of granting such exorbitant damages as a matter of course.