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Scientists have demonstrated an intriguing new technique to treat cancer – “molecular jackhammers” that latch onto cancer cells, then vibrate vigorously to kill them when activated by infrared light.

Chemotherapy and radiation therapy are currently our most effective treatments for cancer, but they have a shotgun effect, damaging healthy cells all through the body. Worse still, some cancers can develop resistance to these attacks, leaving few other options.

But physical attacks are much harder, if not impossible, for cells to develop resistance to. And that’s the goal with the molecular jackhammers developed by researchers at Texas A&M, Rice University and the University of Texas-MD Anderson Cancer Center.

These jackhammers are actually aminocyanine molecules. Their positive charge means they’re attracted to the negative charge of the cancer cells’ outer layers, and once they’re stuck on, infrared light excites electrons in the molecules, causing them to vibrate extremely quickly. A couple of minutes of this is enough to rupture the cell membrane, killing the cancer through necrosis.

In tests, the molecular jackhammers successfully killed off 99% of human melanoma cells in a lab dish. Experiments in live mice with melanoma also resulted in 50% of the animals becoming completely cancer-free.

It might sound like a bad idea to have tiny little jackhammers killing cells in your body, but the important thing to note is that they require infrared light to activate. That means they shouldn’t do any damage if they were to find their way into healthy tissue.

While there’s still plenty of work to do before this could become a practical treatment, it’s an intriguing proof-of-concept. The team says it should be safer and less expensive than radiation, chemotherapy or other experimental techniques like photothermal therapy. The lattermost involves particles or wires of gold or other metals, which can be heated up with lasers to kill tumors.

Source: Texas A&M