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A North Carolina State University team has created a new cancer-killing smartbomb candidate out of a plant virus, like the one shown here. Advantages of this approach include its biocompatibility and ample cargo space (the spherical void inside the outer shell).  (Source: Stanford Synchrotron Radiation Laboratory)
"Someone set us up the bomb"

One of the hottest areas of research in nanotechnology is the creation of tiny "smart bombs" which are able to latch on to a specific cell and deliver a chemical payload.  While such devices would be useful to treat a variety of disease, cancer is their primary target.

Researchers at North Carolina State University have used modified plant viruses to create the latest version of the smart bomb.  By selectively targeting specific cells in the body for payload delivery, it could greatly reduce the effects of toxic treatments like chemotherapy on healthy cells, while increasing the efficacy of killing cancer cells.

For the project Dr. Stefan Franzen, professor of chemistry, and Dr. Steven Lommel, professor of plant pathology and genetics, modified a typical non-toxic plant virus.  The gutted virus has a "cargo space" of 17 nanometers, in which it typically carries its DNA.  This space can be filled with drugs to deliver to cells.  The virus is coated in small proteins, called signal peptides, which help it find its targets. 

By modifying these signal peptides to match those in cancer cells (but not in healthy cells) accepting deliveries, the virus can be injected into the cell and deliver its payload.  Professor Franzen says his team’s smart bomb is better than past designs, stating, "We had tried a number of different nanoparticles as cell-targeting vectors.  The plant virus is superior in terms of stability, ease of manufacture, ability to target cells and ability to carry therapeutic cargo."

The plant virus uses calcium concentrations to trigger the release of its cargo.  When in the bloodstream or intercellular matrix the high calcium concentration prevents the cargo from being released.  However, inside cells the calcium concentration drops, and the virus dumps its cargo.

Professor Lommel describes another perk of using the virus, stating, "Another factor that makes the virus unique is the toughness of its shell.  When the virus is in a closed state, nothing will leak out of the interior, and when it does open, it opens slowly, which means that the virus has time to enter the cell nucleus before deploying its cargo, which increases the drug's efficacy."

As with other efforts, a critical key is to identify chemical markers on cancerous cells and compare them with those in healthy cells.  Much work needs to be done before proper marker proteins can be added to these smart bombs to effectively target cancer.  In other words -- efforts like this one have built a powerful weapon; it just needs its targeting system completed.



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Bad Thing?
By inighthawki on 2/13/2009 12:31:10 PM , Rating: 1
This also sounds like it would make a nice bio-weapon. Create some nano-bombs with a very deadly chemical or virus and have it attack a specific part of the body. May not be the cheapest thing but it sure sounds like it could be effective.




RE: Bad Thing?
By meatless on 2/13/2009 12:39:51 PM , Rating: 3
Why would these be any more devastating than "traditional" bioweapons?


RE: Bad Thing?
By Dreifort on 2/13/2009 12:43:49 PM , Rating: 5
It wouldn't be as obvious as a typical bioweapon.


RE: Bad Thing?
By kkwst2 on 2/14/2009 12:11:41 AM , Rating: 3
Aren't bioweapons by definition, obvious?

Every time one of these cancer-targeting strategies is written about, someone posts how this can be used as a weapon, and it's just as ridiculous each time.

The goal of a bioweapon is to incapacitate or kill groups of people, so the goal is it to be easily dispersed and act quickly. There is no reason to create a vector that targets specific cells.

The purpose of therapeutic vectors are to deliver drugs to a specific target or cell. Because these vectors don't replicate, they won't spread. They basically have no value as a bioweapon.


RE: Bad Thing?
By inighthawki on 2/14/2009 2:53:57 AM , Rating: 2
I think maybe I shouldve been more clear that by bio-weapon i didnt necessarily mean one that would be used to target large groups of people. While it may be unlikely, I was just pointing out that this technology could be exploited to be a "programmable" weapon, compared to say, just poisoning someone.


RE: Bad Thing?
By ayat101 on 2/16/2009 12:23:42 AM , Rating: 1
It could be programmed to latch on to markers specific to a racial group or national subgroup... and then only kill these people in large numbers and quickly.


RE: Bad Thing?
By Adonlude on 2/17/2009 6:54:33 PM , Rating: 3
These things latch on to signal peptides and have nothing to do with the DNA sequences that are responsible for different races. Do some races have signal peptides that others don't?


RE: Bad Thing?
By apmonte on 2/14/2009 10:19:05 AM , Rating: 2
It sounds like this could be applied to attack cells with very specific traits. Imagine that you hate a specific group of people for whom you can identify a specific marker unique to them. I am reminded of a Star Trek episode where a clan thought to have been wiped out, engineered a virus specifically targeted to the clan that wiped them out. Imagine what Hitler could have done with this technology. He could introduce the pathogen to general populace knowing that it would only affect those with a Jewish marker. Sounds like a great tool for ethnic cleansing. Maybe I'm giving to much credit to how this technology could be subverted. Scary to think about though.


RE: Bad Thing?
By aegisofrime on 2/14/2009 10:51:38 PM , Rating: 2
Judaism is a religion, not a race.


RE: Bad Thing?
By apmonte on 2/15/2009 9:28:12 AM , Rating: 2
Feel free to substitute Hebrews or Israelites for Jews.


RE: Bad Thing?
By JasonMick (blog) on 2/13/2009 12:41:56 PM , Rating: 1
Indeed, this could be a nasty assassination weapon, but it would be way to easy to trace, so likely would not be pursued by U.S., Chinese or other intelligence departments (a bunch of plant virus would be a pretty obvious sign of foul play).

As to a terrorist threat, or it being used on a military scale that is highly unlikely as the near future production versions of this will be highly expensive. Thus while it makes sense for cancer treatment, where $1,000 injections are commonplace, the military/terrorists are about as likely to develop this as a weapon as they are to take up using gold bullets.

Really, in the short term, its best just to accept this technology as it is -- a medical technology, still with much work to be done to even accomplish this use. We can worry about further prospects when they become slightly more feasible.


RE: Bad Thing?
By Master Kenobi (blog) on 2/13/2009 12:56:48 PM , Rating: 2
Not a military weapon, but definately a CIA/NSA weapon. Just make it so the delivery system dissipates shortly after being released, that way a blood test shows nothing.


RE: Bad Thing?
By ViroMan on 2/13/2009 10:13:22 PM , Rating: 1
Doctor: "We don't know what exactly caused it but, what we do know is that all his spinal nerves have been killed somehow, causing him breathing problems at first and then die of heart failure."

CIA: "ohh really, hmm... thats interesting."

<later that day>
News Broadcast: OSOMA FOUND DEAD DO TO ILLNESS!


RE: Bad Thing?
By Targon on 2/15/2009 10:32:14 AM , Rating: 2
That is when you call in Dr. House.


RE: Bad Thing?
By MrPoletski on 2/19/2009 9:09:32 AM , Rating: 2
Was that Osama or Obama?

Coz it's damned obvious who is more likely to be assasinated over the next 8 years.


RE: Bad Thing?
By Spookster on 2/13/2009 2:00:51 PM , Rating: 5
My name is Robert Neville. I am a survivor living in New York City. I am broadcasting on all AM frequencies. I will be at the South Street Seaport everyday at mid-day, when the sun is highest in the sky. If you are out there... if anyone is out there... I can provide food, I can provide shelter, I can provide security. If there's anybody out there... anybody... please. You are not alone.


RE: Bad Thing?
By Jimbo1234 on 2/13/09, Rating: 0
RE: Bad Thing?
By inighthawki on 2/13/2009 7:28:19 PM , Rating: 2
Then it's funny on account that I've never seen the show before :P


RE: Bad Thing?
By jon1003 on 2/13/2009 7:43:50 PM , Rating: 4
Uh, Jimbo, that quote is from Will Smith in I Am Legend.


RE: Bad Thing?
By kkwst2 on 2/13/2009 11:54:36 PM , Rating: 2
Uh, Jon, that's not the post they were replying to.


RE: Bad Thing?
By TA152H on 2/13/2009 7:18:20 PM , Rating: 2
Wow, I read stuff like this and I think people are so pessimistic, they don't see a good thing when it finally arrives.

There are plenty of ways to kill people. It's really not too hard. Something might be marginally more effective, but it's easy to kill, anyway. Heck, look at the 1918 virus. We already recreated it, and it probably wouldn't be too difficult to make it more virulent.

Killing cancer is really just as easy, if you're willing to kill the patient as well. But, if you want to get by that minor inconvenience, it becomes very difficult from the perspective of pharmacology. When you think of how many people can be cured if this proves effective, measured against the potential of killing someone with this method, when it's already easy to kill people with other methods, and I don't see how this is a bad thing.

If you have lost loved ones with cancer, I don't think this weird, I watch too much Sci-Fi, outlook would seem as plausible. I hope we never stop searching for cures for terrible diseases like this, because some people think there's a potential for abuse with the method, and that becomes an overriding concern. It's scary even when people talk like that.


RE: Bad Thing?
By hameed on 2/15/2009 5:00:29 AM , Rating: 2
If the idea is to kill someone then there is no difference if you are "subtle" or not...

I mean how would you deliver them?

In cookie baskets?
It would have to be a bomb so there is no need to be so precise in what you target.


Programming
By Ratinator on 2/13/2009 12:56:07 PM , Rating: 2
Being an application developer I understand how to program my applications to do certain things. I am completely clueless as to how they "program" these things to differentiate between cancer cells and healthy cells. Anyone got a close to layman's definition of how this is done or is it too complicated to explain.




RE: Programming
By guy007 on 2/13/2009 1:11:52 PM , Rating: 2
Cancer cells up regulate certain proteins which are located in the cell membrane. They also can display unique proteins depending how poorly differentiated (how bad) the cancer. Basically think of cancer cells as regular cells gone nuts. Their high rate of division combined with environment produces a higher rate of mutation which leads to abnormal proteins or/and protein overexpression on the cell membrane.


RE: Programming
By Ratinator on 2/13/2009 4:25:01 PM , Rating: 2
That didn't answer my question. The cancer cell exhibiting different properties makes sense....that much I have always understood. What I am not understanding is how you program these "smart-bombs" to look for those properties.


RE: Programming
By chrnochime on 2/13/2009 4:57:07 PM , Rating: 2
It says so right in the article. The signal peptides, which are part of the virus, would dictate what kind of cell it would/should latch onto and deliver its payload.

Unless I'm not reading right, the protein coating is what tells the virus what should be targeted.


RE: Programming
By guy007 on 2/13/2009 8:02:20 PM , Rating: 2
They program receptor proteins on the virus that recognizes the proteins on the cancer cell surface


RE: Programming
By Gibsons on 2/13/2009 8:47:13 PM , Rating: 2
Two problems (and there are more)

1 How to program it so it's really specific for cancer cells and not some large number of normal cells. There are very few cancer specific genes and even fewer that might serve as a receptor for a virus.

2 Cancers evolve, pretty rapidly in some cases.


RE: Programming
By highlandsun on 2/13/2009 10:46:28 PM , Rating: 2
It actually makes a lot more sense as an assassination weapon. By the way, you folks who've allowed your entire genome to be published in online databases, I'd re-think that if I were you...

Research done in isolation like this will always come up short of the goal. It has to be combined with other existing knowledge of the problem space, to create a comprehensive solution. For example, we already know that cancer cells give off chemical triggers that cause heightened formation of blood vessels, which supply the nutrients that the rapidly growing cells in a tumor need. Other research has focused on targeting chemicals to cancel out these signals, in an attempt to starve the tumor to death. It would make sense to use those signal emitters as the basis for this approach's targeting system.


RE: Programming
By icanhascpu on 2/13/2009 1:12:33 PM , Rating: 2
Wiki bio 101.


what about the immune system
By chris2618 on 2/14/2009 6:46:41 AM , Rating: 2
As this is just a virus isn't it possible that the body sees the virus as a threat then creates an antibody that neutralises it rendering it ineffective.




RE: what about the immune system
By TennesseeTony on 2/14/2009 10:13:13 AM , Rating: 2
Think of how long it takes to get over the flu. A week or better. By that time, the cargo has been delivered. These viruses can't replicate either, they have to be injected, so the lack of replication may also affect the immune system's response.


By chris2618 on 2/15/2009 7:32:58 AM , Rating: 2
" These viruses can't replicate either, they have to be injected, so the lack of replication may also affect the immune system's response. "

The virus in some vaccines can't replicate but you still get antibody's created so i don't think that will stop the immune system.

Also i don't think you will only have one injection.It will be a course over weeks. so when it comes to the second injection you have antibody's already so you will have to make a new virus with different surface proteins.


RE: what about the immune system
By twjr on 2/15/2009 8:11:39 AM , Rating: 2
I think that is why they are using plant viruses so that the immune system doesn't treat them as threatening. Then again I'm no expert on virology.


By blazeoptimus on 2/13/2009 1:17:02 PM , Rating: 3
I loved that game. I still have it. Nice use of the pic from the game in your article :D




Misquote
By Yawgm0th on 2/13/2009 2:39:54 PM , Rating: 2
It's "Somebody set up us the bomb." It's a critical difference.




GMO
By nstott on 2/15/2009 11:45:18 PM , Rating: 2
I'm curious as to if the econuts will submit to such a treatment given that it's GMO! ;)




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