Genetically engineered diatom biosilica (green) containing liposome-encapsulated drug molecules (yellow) can be targeted to lymphocyte cells in suspension (purple) by functionalizing the biosilica surface with cell specific antibodies. Liposome-encapsulated drug molecules are released from the biosilica carrier in the immediate vicinity of the target cells. Illustration: Marc Cirera.

Genetically engineered diatom biosilica (green) containing liposome-encapsulated drug molecules (yellow) can be targeted to lymphocyte cells in suspension (purple) by functionalizing the biosilica surface with cell specific antibodies. Liposome-encapsulated drug molecules are released from the biosilica carrier in the immediate vicinity of the target cells. Illustration: Marc Cirera.

Hannah Osborne writes in the International Business Times that algae has been genetically engineered to kill cancer cells without harming healthy cells. The algae nanoparticles, created by scientists in Australia, were found to kill 90% of cancer cells in cultured human cells. The algae were also successful at killing cancer in mice with tumors.

Dr. Nico Voelcker, from the University of South Australia, worked with researchers from Dresden in Germany to engineer diatom algae and loaded them with chemotherapeutic drugs. Publishing their study in the journal Nature Communications, the team also found that when they injected the nanoparticles into mice, tumors regressed.

Diatom algae genetically engineered to destroy cancer cells. Photo: Derek Keats/Flickr

Diatom algae genetically engineered to destroy cancer cells. Photo: Derek Keats/Flickr

“By genetically engineering diatom algae — tiny, unicellular, photosynthesizing algae with a skeleton made of nanoporous silica, we are able to produce an antibody-binding protein on the surface of their shells,” said Dr. Voelcker.

“Anti-cancer chemotherapeutic drugs are often toxic to normal tissues. To minimize the off-target toxicity, the drugs can be hidden inside the antibody-coated nanoparticles. The antibody binds only to molecules found on cancer cells, thus delivering the toxic drug specifically to the target cells.”

The report states: “These data indicate that genetically engineered biosilica frustules may be used as versatile ‘backpacks’ for the targeted delivery of poorly water-soluble anticancer drugs to tumor sites.”

“Although it is still early days, this novel drug delivery system based on a biotechnologically tailored, renewable material holds a lot of potential for the therapy of solid tumors including currently untreatable brain tumors,” Dr. Voelcker said.