Early-stage nano-carrier uses miRNA to deploy cancer meds on contact with diseased cells

The team's cancer-targeting nano-carrier could ultimately be adapted to fit the microRNA structures of other diseases like diabetes and hepatitis. (peterschreiber.media/Gettyimages)

Cancer cells could play a key role in the delivery of tumor-fighting drugs, thanks to a new DNA transport system that keeps its therapeutic payload locked away until it comes into contact with diseased cells.

Scientists at the Technical University of Munich (TUM) and the KTH Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm, Sweden, say they’ve developed a synthetic DNA transport system for targeted delivery of cancer drugs.

Led by TUM’s Oliver Lieleg, Ph.D. and the Royal Institute’s Thomas Crouzier, Ph.D., the team has created a nano-carrier using mucin, glycerol and synthetic DNA, which wraps up cancer drugs in a secure package that can only be unlocked by a certain RNA sequence unique to diseased cells, the team said in release.

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The team successfully tested its delivery system in tumor models in cell cultures, publishing their research in the journal ACS Nano. The work is still early-stage stuff, but pending further lab tests on complex tumor models, the nano-carrier could tee up cancer treatments more precise than radiation or chemotherapy, which take a toll on healthy cells as well as tumors.

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The team’s system uses mucins—proteins found in the mucus membranes of the mouth, stomach and intestines—to encase the cancer drug. Because mucins are naturally occurring, the body should have an easier time breaking down leftover carriers, the team posits.

The mucin is bound together with strands of synthetic DNA, bolstered by the addition of glycerol, which stabilizes the mucin particles. The glycerol also helps the mucin particles fold up around the paired drug, the team added. 

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Once the DNA strands are bonded together, they stabilize and "lock up" the cancer drug payload, remaining sealed until they encounter the right “key”—in this case, a particular microRNA particle unique to cancer.

This should allow the delivery system to deploy drugs to tumors without affecting the healthy cells around them, minimizing side effects, the team hopes, though it will need to run additional preclinical and animal studies before it can test its platform in humans. 

And while the team set out to create a delivery system for cancer drugs that wouldn’t damage healthy cells, their nano-carrier could ultimately be adapted to fit the microRNA structures of other diseases like diabetes and hepatitis, the researchers said.