Killing or Curing Cells with Nano-Sized Drills

Cartoon Drill

Houston-based Rice University, with assistance from colleagues at North Carolina State University and in the U.K., has created nano-sized molecules that can be controlled with light and equipped with miniature drills used to either repair or dismantle individual cells. The action taken by these molecules will depend on the cell’s status - either curable or part of a larger disease, such as cancer.

If delivering medication can assist in curing the patient, then the molecules will use microscopic drills or saws spinning at up to three million rotations per second to puncture the cell membranes and make the delivery.  If the cells are deemed too diseased for medication, then these same tools can be used to kill the cell. These nano-sized machines are activated by ultraviolet light and controlled with microscopic fiber optics.

This use of UV light offers benefits and challenges. Although it’s safe to use and abundantly available, it can’t penetrate very deeply into the skin. So right now, cells residing on the surface of tissues are the only ones that can be treated, such as skin cancer. Additionally, overexposure to UV light can be harmful, so exposures/treatments would need to be short and spaced out over time.

Plans for the team in the next phase will focus on the use of molecules and mechanisms activated by infrared light, which poses fewer exposure issues and offers deeper penetration capabilities. Infrared activation and control would allow for use inside the body and could potentially eliminate biopsies and other surgical treatments for cancer. The teams’ work was recently detailed in a paper published in the journal Nature.

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