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Genetically engineered algae kill cancer cells

A research group in Australia has developed algae nanoparticles. The algae have been found to kill 90 percent of cancer cells in cultured human cells. Based on this success, the modified algae have been shown to destroy cancerous tumors in mice.

Algae is a general term for a range of single-celled microscopic photosynthetic organisms such as diatoms, and larger, multi-cellular plants, like kelp. The use of algae in cancer treatment relates to drug delivery. Some success has been achieved with the use of nanoparticles (such as nanoporous silica) to deliver anti-cancer medicines. One downside with this relates to the cost of production and the fact that some nanoparticles can be toxic. To overcome this, researchers based at the University of South Australia have used algae to model an alternative drug delivery system.

Success has been achieved with microalgae-derived nanoporous biosilica. The bio-material was derived from Thalassiosira pseudonana, which is a species of marine diatom. Diatoms are are among the most common types of phytoplankton, and they are found in the oceans, in freshwater, in soils and on damp surfaces. In studies, modified diatoms have been used as types of backpacks for the targeted delivery of anticancer drugs to tumor sites.

Lead researcher Nico Voelcker, speaking with International Business Times, explained why genetic modification was key in adapting the diatoms: “By genetically engineering diatom algae – tiny, unicellular, photosynthesising algae with a skeleton made of nanoporous silica, we are able to produce an antibody-binding protein on the surface of their shells. Anti-cancer chemotherapeutic drugs are often toxic to normal tissues.”

Although the results are interesting, experiments in cell culture and even on mice do not necessarily translate into success in humans. A series of clinical trials will be required to verify the results and to streamline any potential treatment options.

The research is published in the journal Nature Communications, in a paper headed “Targeted drug delivery using genetically engineered diatom biosilica.”

Written By

Dr. Tim Sandle is Digital Journal's Editor-at-Large for science news. Tim specializes in science, technology, environmental, and health journalism. He is additionally a practising microbiologist; and an author. He is also interested in history, politics and current affairs.

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