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Scientists destroy 99% of cancer cells in lab using new technique with 'vibrating molecules'

The early-stage research - which saw 99 per cent of melanoma cells eradicated in a lab - could provide new cancer treatment options, experts say.

Lauren Chadwick, Euronews, Jan 10, 2024

Scientists in the US have found a way to destroy cancer cells by stimulating molecules with near-infrared light and causing them to vibrate.

The researchers found that the method was 99 per cent effective against lab cultures of human melanoma cells.

Their method involves getting a small dye molecule used in medical imaging to vibrate by stimulating it with near-infrared light.

It forms something called a plasmon, which is the rapid oscillation of electrons in the molecule back and forth similar to the waves in the sea. This causes the membrane of the cancerous cells to rupture.

The findings were published in December in Nature Chemistry.

"The vibration activated by near-infrared light means that anything surrounded by the molecule will be destroyed, in this case, the cancer cell," Ciceron Ayala-Orozco, a research scientist at Rice University in the US and lead author of the study, told Euronews Next.

While so far, the researchers have found the "molecular jackhammer" method to be effective in the laboratory and on mice, the "challenge is to translate this" into human treatment options, he added. But this will likely take a long time.

He hopes that instead of being 15 to 20 years away from clinical application, they could prove the molecular jackhammers' safety more quickly.

"A similar class of molecules are already being used clinically," which Ayala-Orozco hopes could "accelerate the clinical translation" of the research.

The main obstacles to applying this type of method on humans are potential "side effects and toxicity," he added.

'New ways to treat cancer'

Dr Nisharnthi Duggan, the Science Engagement Manager at Cancer Research UK, who was not involved in the study, said that "a major challenge in cancer research is designing medicines that cancer cells won't become resistant to".

"This study raises the possibility of using infrared light to stimulate certain molecules to vibrate and kill cells, a process to which they're unlikely to develop resistance. This is very early-stage research, but the idea could lead to new ways to treat some types of cancer," she added.

Rice University scientists had previously used light-activated molecules to destroy bacteria, cancer cells and fungi, and with visible light rather than ultraviolet radiation to do so.

This new method, however, uses molecular jackhammers, which are much faster than the previously-used molecular motors based on Nobel laureate Bernard Feringa's work.

"Every time the light hits the molecule, that molecule starts expanding and contracting," explained Ayala-Ozozco. "In one second, the molecule will oscillate or vibrate one trillion times".

"It's so fast that by the mechanical forces around the molecule because of that vibration, it will disassemble the biological structures," he said.

The near-infrared light can also penetrate deeper into the body than visible light, the researchers added.

The therapeutic effect of the molecular jackhammers was tested on mice, applying them by intratumoral injection. This means they injected the molecules directly into the melanoma tumours.

Out of the 10 mice in one of the four groups, five of them were tumour-free at seven months, making the method about 50 per cent effective.

"At the right dose, the molecule is safe," Ayala-Ozoco says, and once the beam of light is activated on the tumour, it will kill the tumour cells that are illuminated.

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