When I hear “nanotechnology,” I tend to think of microscopic components that have been designed and fabricated by people for some purpose or another. Scientists at the University of South Australia have taken a different approach to engineering their nanoparticles. Working with collaborators in Dresden, Germany, the researchers have found a way to make algae grow the tiny devices that they want.
Unlike the large seaweeds that you might think of when you think “algae,” this project relies on tiny diatom algae. These single-celled plants surround themselves with a hard protective shell made out of silicon dioxide. Different species create a stunning range of different shapes for these shells. The scientists have found ways to genetically engineer the shells to meet their specific needs. In this case, they wanted the outer shell to contain an anti-body protein that only binds to molecules found on cancer cells.
Why do they want to do this? They can load up the algae’s shell with a cancer-killing drug. The medication would be harmful if applied generally throughout a patient’s body, but by binding the algae shell to the cancer cell, the drug can be released only in close proximity to the target. Think of a microscopic anti-ship mine waiting to blow up a cancer cell. It’s still early days for this technology, but it holds the promise of a sustainable, renewable material that can be tailored to target specific cancer cells, including inoperable brain tumors that might not be able to be treated effectively using any other method.