Scientists Create Molecular Nanodrills That Destroy Cancer Cells

This could end the days of suffering through cancer treatment. 

 

Anyone who has gone through cancer treatment or known someone who has, has seen how detrimental the side effects can be. My mother happens to be going through chemotherapy right now for breast cancer. Although it was an aggressive variety, they caught it early. It was surgically removed and she’s going through chemo only to avoid recurrence. Though I’m thankful for that, the chemo still makes her dreadfully nauseous and weak.


There are drugs to offset its effects, but unfortunately she, like many others, can’t take them. The side effects were so severe that now, she’s getting half the dose originally prescribed. If they stuck with the full dose, she might not survive, the doctor said. My mom is halfway through and after four more treatments, she’ll have radiation to look forward to. Fortunately, her doctors have given her a 90% chance it won’t come back. Others are not so lucky.

The problem is that treatments like chemo and radiation attack healthy and malignant tissue indiscriminately. Because of this, researchers have been seeking out ways to target cancer cells while leaving healthy ones alone. Photodynamic therapy is one approach. Here, an inert drug is usually inserted inside a tumor then activated by light or a laser, destroying the cancer while minimizing collateral damage. Another method just starting to be explored is employing nanotechnology.

Nanocar designed by Rice University. Edumol Molecular Visualizations. Wikimedia Commons.

Now, a collaborative effort among researchers at Rice, Durham, and North Carolina State Universities is getting a lot of attention. Their novel method could eliminate the suffering cancer patients go through today. They’ve developed molecular machines which can drill into and destroy cancer cells, leaving health ones untouched. The results were published in the journal Nature. These drills are miniscule. 50,000 of them end-to-end would equal the width of a human hair. They’re also photodynamic.

The way they work is, once in place, the nanomachines are activated via ultraviolet light. They drill down into a cancer cell, killing it. It was only last year that Bernard Feringa won the Nobel Prize for creating the world’s first electric drill on a nanoscale. These researchers built theirs off of that design. Feringa’s was a thousand times smaller than the diameter of a hair, which although still impressive, seems huge by comparison.  

On the left, the nanodrill sits atop a cell membrane. On the right, it’s been activated. Rice University.

These latest nanomachines are each a single rotor which completes 2-3 million rotations per second. Previous prototypes spun slower, but they had a hard time overcoming Brownian motion. This is the forceful erratic movement of microscopic particles within fluid, due to a constant bombardment on many sides by surrounding particles.

Besides its powerful drilling capability, each nanomachine carries a certain peptide with it to ensure the cancer’s demise. These nanodrills were tested on prostate cancer cells. It took between one to three minutes for the drill to break through each cell’s membrane and demolish it.

See them in action here:

Dr. Robert Pal led the study. He hails from Durham University in the UK. “Once developed,” he said, “this approach could provide a potential step change in non-invasive cancer treatment and greatly improve survival rates and patient welfare globally.” Not only would it be used to treat a wide variety of cancers, it could end the days of suffering through side effects.

So far, tests on human and animal cells have been successful. But years of further research lie ahead, before these nanodrills are introduced into the clinical sphere. Next will be tests on microbes and small fish, followed by mice and rats. If all goes well, human trials will follow. Researchers say that not only are these nanomachines useful for killing cancer, in the future, such machines may also engage in cell repair as well.

Nanotech, when it really comes of age, is likely to disrupt not only medicine but the energy sector and others as well. Could nanotech lead to a kind of utopia, free of pollution, disease, and even want?

See what one theoretical physicist thinks here: 

Drill, Baby, Drill: What will we look for when we mine on Mars?

It's unlikely that there's anything on the planet that is worth the cost of shipping it back

Surprising Science
  • In the second season of National Geographic Channel's MARS (premiering tonight, 11/12/18,) privatized miners on the red planet clash with a colony of international scientists
  • Privatized mining on both Mars and the Moon is likely to occur in the next century
  • The cost of returning mined materials from Space to the Earth will probably be too high to create a self-sustaining industry, but the resources may have other uses at their origin points

Want to go to Mars? It will cost you. In 2016, SpaceX founder Elon Musk estimated that manned missions to the planet may cost approximately $10 billion per person. As with any expensive endeavor, it is inevitable that sufficient returns on investment will be needed in order to sustain human presence on Mars. So, what's underneath all that red dust?

Mining Technology reported in 2017 that "there are areas [on Mars], especially large igneous provinces, volcanoes and impact craters that hold significant potential for nickel, copper, iron, titanium, platinum group elements and more."

Were a SpaceX-like company to establish a commercial mining presence on the planet, digging up these materials will be sure to provoke a fraught debate over environmental preservation in space, Martian land rights, and the slew of microbial unknowns which Martian soil may bring.

In National Geographic Channel's genre-bending narrative-docuseries, MARS, (the second season premieres tonight, November 12th, 9 pm ET / 8 pm CT) this dynamic is explored as astronauts from an international scientific coalition go head-to-head with industrial miners looking to exploit the planet's resources.

Given the rate of consumption of minerals on Earth, there is plenty of reason to believe that there will be demand for such an operation.

"Almost all of the easily mined gold, silver, copper, tin, zinc, antimony, and phosphorus we can mine on Earth may be gone within one hundred years" writes Stephen Petranek, author of How We'll Live on Mars, which Nat Geo's MARS is based on. That grim scenario will require either a massive rethinking of how we consume metals on earth, or supplementation from another source.

Elon Musk, founder of SpaceX, told Petranek that it's unlikely that even if all of Earth's metals were exhausted, it is unlikely that Martian materials could become an economically feasible supplement due to the high cost of fuel required to return the materials to Earth. "Anything transported with atoms would have to be incredibly valuable on a weight basis."

Actually, we've already done some of this kind of resource extraction. During NASA's Apollo missions to the Moon, astronauts used simple steel tools to collect about 842 pounds of moon rocks over six missions. Due to the high cost of those missions, the Moon rocks are now highly valuable on Earth.


Moon rock on display at US Space and Rocket Center, Huntsville, AL (Big Think/Matt Carlstrom)

In 1973, NASA valuated moon rocks at $50,800 per gram –– or over $300,000 today when adjusted for inflation. That figure doesn't reflect the value of the natural resources within the rock, but rather the cost of their extraction.

Assuming that Martian mining would be done with the purpose of bringing materials back to Earth, the cost of any materials mined from Mars would need to include both the cost of the extraction and the value of the materials themselves. Factoring in the price of fuel and the difficulties of returning a Martian lander to Earth, this figure may be entirely cost prohibitive.

What seems more likely, says Musk, is for the Martian resources to stay on the Red Planet to be used for construction and manufacturing within manned colonies, or to be used to support further mining missions of the mineral-rich asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter.

At the very least, mining on Mars has already produced great entertainment value on Earth: tune into Season 2 of MARS on National Geographic Channel.

Harvard scientists suggest 'Oumuamua is an alien device

It's an asteroid, it's a comet, it's actually a spacecraft?

(ESO/M. Kornmesser)
Surprising Science
  • 'Oumuamua is an oddly shaped, puzzling celestial object because it doesn't act like anything naturally occurring.
  • The issue? The unexpected way it accelerated near the Sun. Is this our first sign of extraterrestrials?
  • It's pronounced: oh MOO-uh MOO-uh.
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Study: The effects of online trolling on authors, publications

A study started out trying to see the effect of sexist attacks on women authors, but it found something deeper.

Maxpixel
Surprising Science
  • It's well known that abusive comments online happen to women more than men
  • Such comments caused a "significant effect for the abusive comment on author credibility and intention to seek news from the author and outlet in the future"
  • Some news organizations already heavily moderate or even ban comments entirely; this should underscore that effort
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