Above picture: The cancer cells that have not been treated have an elongated shape. Picture below: The cancer cells have absorbed the packages with cytotoxin and show signs that they are about to die. The green spots show regions with high concentration of the packages.

Cancer treatments, like chemotherapy and radiation, are notorious for their nasty side effects and the damage they do to healthy cells surrounding the cancerous ones. Moreover, their effectiveness is limited when the cancer has spread through out the body. Researchers are constantly exploring new possible treatments, and a team from the Niels Bohr Institute has developed a different approach to taking out cancer that involves tricking and poisoning cancer cells, leaving healthy cells unaffected.

Physicist Murillo Martins at the Niels Bohr Institute at the University of Copenhagen had an idea. He wanted to construct a kind of nanoscale 'lorry' that could transport the cytotoxin directly to the cancer cells via the bloodstream and would prompt the cells to let the 'load' in so that the cancer cells were destroyed. It is something you could imagine in a science fiction film, but could it be done in the real world?

The first task was the 'vehicle' itself. For that he decided to inject the beads into the bloodstream and by placing a magnet at the site where the tumor is located he got the beads to move there.

The next step was the cytotoxic load.

"We designed a ring-shaped sac of a biologically useful base material and using chemical processes we encapsulated the cytotoxin surrounding the beads. The coupling does not always happen, but using a separation process we can sort the beads from where the coupling with the sac did not succeed"- explains the physicist Murillo Martins.

At the neutron scattering facility LANSCE in the US and the synchrotron facility at the Paul Scherrer Institute, PSI in Switzerland, the package was checked from inside and confirmed whether the cytotoxin was encapsulated in the ring-shaped package.

Cells have surrounding membranes responsible for warding off foreign substances and protecting the cell. However, cell membranes have receptors that, if activated, can allow a substance to enter. Like a key to a lock, the substance must have the right activation on the receptor to be allowed into the cell. Based on the spread of certain cancers, Martins created a coating of calcium phosphate for the toxin package.

“I thought, why do breast cancer, lung cancer, and ovarian cancer so often spread to the bones?”- Martin said. “Bones are composed of minerals like calcium phosphates. Do cancer cells need these substances to grow? Can these substances be used as doorways to the cell? I decided to investigate this”.

With the help of collaborators at the Laboratory of Tumor Immunology at the School of Bioscience in Botucatu, Brazil, the researchers tested their new concoction on breast cancer, lung cancer, and colon cancer cells, in addition to healthy cells (monocytes and fibroblasts). They found that cancer cells and healthy cells responded to the packages quite differently.

“We could see that the nanoparticles with the toxin were absorbed by the cancer cells. This caused the metabolism of the cancer cells to change and the cells showed signs that they were about to die,” said Heloisa Bordallo, associate professor in X-ray and neutron science at the Niels Bohr Institute. “The healthy signs, meanwhile, do not show any evidences of absorbing the packages with the toxin. This suggests that the method can be used to send toxin around the body with reduced toxicity and could therefore be potentially safer for healthy cells”.

According to Pharmaion study, pharma and healthcare consultants, this study is a new treatment for cancerous cells at a cellular level. The study has showed a positive result after the cytotoxin was encapsulated to the cells, as it leads to the death of the cancerous cells while the healthy cells remain unaffected.


  • Image adapted from: Bordallo and Martins, Niels Bohr Institute-