Nano-pills loaded with a potent drug infiltrate simulated tumours (living cells in green) and kill them (dead cells in red).

Nano-pills loaded with a potent drug infiltrate simulated tumours (living cells in green) and kill them (dead cells in red). A control tumour (upper left) showed no change, but tumours treated with increasing concentrations of the drug (lowest, upper middle panel; highest, lower right) succumbed. Credit: L. Su et al./J. Am. Chem. Soc.

Biochemistry

A sweet pill turns deadly for tumours

Glucose-based nano-pill delivers potent drug to cancer cells, then fades away.

Nanoparticles have been designed to sneak into tumour cells and blast them with anti-cancer drugs before degrading into harmless byproducts.

Karen Wooley and Justin Smolen at Texas A&M University in College Station and their colleagues sought to develop a drug-carrying nanoparticle that could kill cancer cells but minimize collateral damage to healthy cells. To do this, the team based their nanoparticle on the sugar glucose, which breaks down into simple products.

The team loaded the nanocarrier with a version of the potent cancer drug paclitaxel, which is activated by molecules that are found in greater quantities in cancerous cells than in normal cells. The nanoparticles are just the right size to penetrate cells in lung tissues.

When mice with metastatic tumours in their lungs inhaled the nanoparticles, growth of the metastases slowed, raising hopes for future lung-cancer treatments.