Researchers genetically engineer algae to kill cancer cells

New interdisciplinary research has revealed the frontline role tiny algae could play in the battle against cancer, through the innovative use of nanotechnology.

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

In the research – titled ‘Targeted drug delivery using genetically engineered diatom biosilica – Professor Voelcker explains the potential benefits of this method to combat cancer. He says: “By genetically engineering diatom algae – tiny, unicellular, photosynthesizing algae with a skeleton made of nanoporous silica, we are able to produce an antibody-binding protein on the surface of their shells.

“Anti-cancer chemotherapeutic drugs are often toxic to normal tissues. To minimize the off-target toxicity, the drugs can be hidden inside the antibody-coated nanoparticles. The antibody binds only to molecules found on cancer cells, this delivering the toxic drug specifically to the target cells.”

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

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