'Hitchhiking' gold nanostars can sneak into cancer cells

Researchers at Northwestern University are touting some positive results for an inventive drug delivery method: Gold-crafted, star-shaped nanoparticles that get deep into cancer cells to unload treatment.

Here's how it works: The gold nanostars are loaded with the DNA aptamer AS1411 and injected into the body. Once there, they bind with nucleolin, a protein found on the surface of cancer cells. Then, as the cell draws the needed nucleolin toward its nucleus, the nanostars essentially trick the cancerous cells into letting them in, and, with a burst of light delivered by the researchers, the particles break up to deliver the aptamer and harm the cell.

The researchers studied the method's effectiveness on human cervical and ovarian cancer cells, and they found the method contributes to a deformation of cancer cells' nuclei. The process can lead to cells dying and failing to reproduce.

Other nano cancer treatments have to deal with penetrating tumor cells, which requires passing through the nuclear membrane and thus crafting nanoparticles of certain size and shape. This Trojan Horse method does away with all that, and because Northwestern's nanostars get a nuclear welcome mat, they can be fairly large (for nanoparticles, that is) and loaded with a bigger drug payload.

After the initial tests, researchers have put their method up against 12 other cancer cell lines, finding similar results all around. "All cancer cells seem to respond similarly," lead researcher Teri Odom explained, as quoted by ​Futurity​. "This suggests that the shuttling capabilities of the nucleolin protein for functionalized nanoparticles could be a general strategy for nuclear-targeted drug delivery."

The scientists believe that as the method is developed, it will be particularly handy in fighting cancers close to the skin's surface. These would include skin and some breast cancers.

- read Futurity's report

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