Two researchers at Michigan State University in East Lansing have discovered a new way to detect and attack cancer cells using technology traditionally reserved for solar power.
The results were published in Scientific Reports and show improvements in light-activated fluorescent dyes for disease diagnosis, image-guided surgery, and site-specific tumor treatment.
“We’ve tested this concept in breast, lung cancer, and skin cancer cell lines and mouse models, and so far it’s all looking remarkably promising,” says Sophia Lunt, a biochemistry and molecular biologist at MSU. Richard Lunt, Sophia Lunt’s husband and the Johansen Crosby Endowed Professor of chemical engineering and material science, also worked on the research.
Fluorescent dyes have shortcomings such as low brightness, high toxicity to cells, poor tissue penetration, and unwanted side effects.
The couple optoelectronically tuned organic salt nanoparticles to use as theranostics, or using dyes for therapeutics and diagnostics, to control them in a range of cancer studies. Coaxing the nanoparticles into the nontoxic zone resulted in enhanced imaging while pushing them into the phototoxic, or light-activated, range to produce on-site tumor treatment.
The key was learning to control the electronics of the photoactive molecules independently from their optical properties and then applying the understanding to a seemingly unrelated field.
“This work has the potential to transform fluorescent probes for broad societal impact through applications ranging from biomedicine to photocatalysis – the acceleration of chemical reactions with light,” Richard Lunt says. “Our solar research inspired this cancer project and, in turn, focusing on cancer cells has advanced our solar cell research; it’s been an amazing feedback loop.”
Richard Lunt had recently discovered the ability to electronically tune these salts from his work in converting photovoltaics into solar glass.
Sophia Lunt had studied metabolic pathways unique to cancer cells. The Lunts then made the connection that molecules active in the solar cells might be used to target and kill cancer cells.
The couple takes daily two-mile walks, and the idea was born during one of them.
“We talk science, strategic plans for our careers, and our various grants,” Sophia Lunt says. “We ping ideas off each other. Our continual conversations brainstorming ideas on a particular topic or challenge often lead to those exciting ‘aha’ moments.”
Richard Lunt designs the molecules, Babak Borhan, a chemist at MSU, synthesizes and improves them, and Sophia tests their photoactive inventions in cancer cell lines and mouse models.
Future work will focus on improving effectiveness, decreasing toxicity, and reducing side effects. The couple has applied for a patent and are looking to eventually hold clinical trials.
The research was funded in part by the National Science Foundation and an MSU Strategic Partnership Grant. The study is available here.