Self-assembling, shape-shifting polymers in blood could treat cancer

1 Nov 2017

Polymer balls. Image: Travkin Igor/Shutterstock

A team of Australian researchers has figured out how to make effective, shape-shifting polymers that could greatly improve cancer treatments.

As part of the latest effort to create advanced and effective cancer treatments, a team of researchers from the University of New South Wales (UNSW) in Sydney has revealed a breakthrough that is incredibly rare in nature.

In a paper published to the journal Nature Communications, the team detailed how it was able to control the shape of polymer molecules so that they self-assemble into non-spherical nanoparticles.

With an eye on using it to improve the delivery of toxic drugs to tumours, the team was able to make smart polymers that shift their shape according to the different conditions around them, to form tiny ellipsoidal or tubular structures that can encapsulate drugs.

In doing so, these natural-shaped plastic nanoparticles enter tumour cells more easily than spherical ones.

‘Straightforward but elegant solution’

Most biological structures – such as cells, bacteria and viruses – come in a variety of shapes, including tubes, rods, squashed spheres and ellipsoids.

However, it has proven very difficult for scientists to synthesise particles that are not perfectly round. As such, this breakthrough offers significant potential.

To achieve this result, the UNSW Sydney team worked with polymer molecules that contain both a water-soluble portion and a non-water-soluble portion.

In the solution, these molecules then self-assemble into round, hollow structures known as polymersomes, which are rapidly emerging as powerful new tools to deliver drugs to the desired part of the body, due to their high stability, chemical versatility and the ease with which molecules on their surface can be altered.

“It’s a straightforward but elegant solution which we feel has great potential for making a wide range of complex polymer structures inspired by nature,” said Prof Martina Stenzel of the research team.

Efforts to introduce new materials for drug delivery and treatment are an ever-growing pursuit of science, similar to what is being undertaken by a French start-up called Eligo Bioscience, which wants to use nanobots in the human body for precision medicine.

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic