The study was conducted by a team led by Mingjun Zhang, an associate professor of biomedical engineering at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. The researchers discovered that nanoparticles made by A. oligospora have the potential to stimulate the immune system and destroy tumors.
Zhang frequently turns to nature for help with science's unanswered questions. After analyzing how fungi trap roundworms, Zhang, along with his colleague Yongzhong Wang, found that they produce nanocomposites which are made up of highly uniform nanoparticles.
Research has shown that nanoparticles, which are microscopic particles, are significant in treatments of cancer. A study on mice from earlier this year found that nanoparticles can shrink ovarian cancer tumors.
"Naturally occuring nanoparticles have drawn increasing interest from scientific communities for their biocompatibility. Due to their high surface-to-volume ratio, nanoparticles have demonstrated unique optical, thermal and electronic properties. In addition, their small size allows them to easily cross cell membranes, an essential requirement for cancer therapy."
The potential of the fungal nanoparticles to serve as a stimulant for the immune system was evaluated through an in-vitro study. Results showed that secretion of an immune-system stimulant within a while blood cell line was activated by the nanoparticles.
The researchers also determined the nanoparticles' ability to destroy tumors by testing their toxicity to cells in-vitro, using tumor cell lines. They found that the cancer cells were destroyed by nanoparticles.
As a consequence of evolution, Zhang explained, there are several illnesses existing in nature, but nature also provides a great deal of ways to cure them. Nanostructures which are nature-based can turn into an almost infinite number of structures - experts believe they could be useful for new treatments.
"This study could be the entrance into a gold mine of new materials to treat cancers," Zhang pointed out. "Understanding how these nanostructures are formed in the natural systems will also provide templates for the synthesis of a future generation of engineered nanostructures for biomedical applications."
The scientists' method has great potential to create a new way of regulating the synthesis of organic nanoparticles by using synthetic biology.
"This exciting discovery is the first step forward in the development of natural nanoparticle-based therapeutics for cancer treatment and demonstrates the importance of looking to nature for innovation in disease treatment."
The study received funding from the Biochemistry Program in the Life Sciences Division of the U.S. Army Research Office.
Written by Sarah Glynn