Genetically engineering algae to kill cancer cells

New nanotechnology research has revealed the frontline role that algae could play in the battle against cancer

Professor Nico Voelcker’s team at the University of South Australia and collaborators in Dresden, Germany, have genetically engineered diatom algae to become therapeutic nanoporous particles that, when loaded with chemotherapeutic drugs, can be used to destroy cancer cells in the human body, without harming healthy cells.

Details of this research: ‘Targeted Drug Delivery Using Genetically Engineered Diatom Biosilica,' are being published in the latest edition of Nature Communications, wherein Professor Voelcker explains the potential benefits of this method to combat cancer.

‘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,’ Prof Voelcker says. ‘Anticancer chemotherapeutic drugs are often toxic to normal tissues. To minimise the off-target toxicity, the drugs can be hidden inside the antibody coated nanoparticles. The antibody binds only to molecules found on cancer cells, thus delivering the toxic drug specifically to the target cells.’

As the Strand Leader in Biomaterials Engineering and Nanomedicine at the University of South Australia’s Future Industries Institute, Professor Voelcker highlights how this type of research could influence future health care: ‘Although it is still early days, this novel drug delivery system based on a biotechnologically tailored, renewable material holds a lot of potential for the therapy of solid tumours, including currently untreatable brain tumours.