Chemists at New York’s Hunter College have designed a carbohydrate-based molecule that can surround and strangle bone cancer cells by self-assembling into a tangled web of nano-fibers. The molecule spares healthy cells because its assembly is triggered by an enzyme that is found in excess only in cancer cells.
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Scientists are developing molecules that spontaneously assemble into simpler versions of this matrix to provide a growth medium for cells, in particular for the “tissue engineering” market.
The phosphate-free peptides that were used, have a hydrophilic end and a hydrophobic one, which allow them to assemble like lipids in a cell membrane. The negative charge on the phosphate groups creates electrostatic repulsion between the molecules and prevents this. This phosphate on-off switch is great for targeting cancer because some types of cancer cells over-express alkaline phosphates, an enzyme that cleaves phosphates.
Furthermore, it is also possible to get carbohydrate-based molecules to behave the same way. Compared with peptides carbohydrates can lead to more diverse structures, opening up new possible applications. So to make their web-weaving molecules, the researchers first took the hydrophilic carbohydrate glucosamine and added a hydrophobic aromatic group to create a molecule that would self-assemble. They then added a phosphate group to the sugar.
To test the molecule’s cancer-killing prowess, the researchers added it to cultures of bone cancer cells as well as to normal cartilage cells, which have only about 5% of the alkaline phosphates activity observed in the cancerous ones. After seven hours, about 95% of the bone cancer cells had died, while only 15% of the cartilage ones were dead.
The study clearly demonstrated that high enzyme activity can serve as a way to target cancer cells. One concern is that the scientific team needed to use concentrations of the molecule that are higher than are typical for drugs. High concentrations often require large doses for patients, which usually mean high risk of side effects. Therefore the team needs to study possible side effects of their self-assembling carbohydrates.
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Source: Grand View Research