Cancer: 'Tumour monorail' can lead cancers to their doom
- 17 February 2014
- From the section Health
Cancer "monorails" can be used to kill tumours by luring them into toxic pits or areas of the body that are safer to operate on, say US researchers.
A team at the Georgia Institute of Technology designed nanofibres thinner than a human hair which cancers "choose" to travel down.
Animal studies showed brain tumours could be shrunk by tricking cancer cells into migrating down the fibres.
Cancer Research UK said it was a fascinating idea, but early days.
The team were working with difficult-to-treat brain cancers - glioblastomas, which have a tendency to spread inside the brain.
The cancerous cells travel down nerves and blood vessels as they invade the brain.
The nanofibre technology, reported in Nature Materials, mimics the channels cancerous cells use to move.
One of the researchers Prof Ravi Bellamkonda said: "The cancer cells normally latch on to these natural structures and ride them like a monorail to other parts of the brain.
"By providing an attractive alternative fibre, we can efficiently move the tumours along a different path to a destination that we choose."
Deadly brain tumours
A variety of different types of cancer were able to ride the monorail in tests in a Petri dish.
Animal studies showed that tumours could be drawn out of the brain and into an implanted toxic gel.
The size of the tumour was 93% smaller in animals fitted with the cancer monorail than in rats in which the tumour was untreated.
Prof Bellamkonda told the BBC: "It's a way of bringing the tumour to the drug, not the drug to the tumour.
"You can move a tumour along a path you specify and then kill it, it's not creating extra tumour and the primary tumour actually shrinks. "
He suggested that controlling the growth of a tumour might be able to make cancer something people live with, like diabetes, if it cannot be cured.
Another idea is to make cancer surgery easier.
Normally the tumour and the surrounding tissue are removed, but this is a challenge in the brain where removing any unnecessary tissue could have dire consequences.
Prof Bellamkonda suggested doctors might be able to move a tumour to an area more easily operated on.
However, the research is still at a very early stage and there will be far more animal studies before it is considered in people.
Dr Emma Smith, senior science information officer at Cancer Research UK, said: "This fascinating, cutting-edge approach could lead to new ways of stopping tumours growing without damaging healthy tissue, which is particularly important for people with brain tumours.
"But it's still in its infancy and so far has only been tested in rats, so there is a long way to go before we know if it will be safe and effective as a cancer treatment."