How Science & Creativity Kills Cancer Cells

By Shlomo  Maital  

limpet mine      


A Limpet Mine

   In a recent blog (Nov. 26) I described the remarkable creativity of MIT Institute Professor Robert Langer and his Langer Lab, which has spun off countless inventions, especially regarding ways to deliver pharmaceutical drugs more effectively to combat disease.

     In The Economist’s The World in 2013 Langer and a co-author describe a remarkable breakthrough in drug delivery and anti-cancer treatment, using nanotechnology.  A startup called BIND Biosciences, founded by Langer and Harvard Pro. Omid Farokhzad, works the following magic: 

   An anti-cancer drug is placed in a tiny sphere 100 nanometers in diameter, with a coating that makes the immunological system ignore it (otherwise white cells would destroy it).  On this coating itself are “homing molecules” that attach themselves to proteins produced by cancer molecules, but not to healthy tissue.  BIND-014 spheres circulate until they find a tumor. Then they stick themselves to it and release their paylod of anti-cancer medicine.  The result is far more effective than concentional chemotherapy, which introduces toxic medicine into the body that damages healthy cells as well as cancer cells.

    The technology is not unlike that of WWII limpet mines. Naval commandos would carry these mines to enemy ships and then stick the mines to the ship beneath the water line.  The resulting explosion sank the ship.  The photograph shows such a limpet mine, as it would be carried by a naval commando (who probably did not wear a tie).

   Arthur Clarke said truly advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. Here is another piece of magic described by Langer.  A ‘micro-rocket’ containing anti-cancer drugs rockets through the blood stream, propelled by hydrogen (the zinc inside it combines with acid in the body to create zinc chloride and hydrogen gas). It travels at 0.3 meters per hour, and keeps moving until it finds the rare circulatory cells that cause cancer to spread.  The micro-rocket then kills the cells with its payload, much like an Iron Dome rocket meets and destroys an incoming enemy rocket.  Langer sais that these micro-rockets could be guided magnetically to specific sites where cancer tumors exist.   

Both these incredible ideas sound plausible, but both are exceedingly difficult to implement.  And Langer explains them using Isaac Asimov’s famous “Fantastic Voyage” concept, of a miniaturized submarine inserted into the body to heal an ill person.  Sooner or later, the best science fiction becomes fact, thanks to innovators like Langer.