Attacking Cancer With LEGO-Style Molecular Building Blocks

Computer illustration of web inside cell

Cancer is an insidious, tricky disease. So scientists have to be just as devious in developing ways to defeat it. Researchers at the Max Planck Institute For Polymer Research (MPI-P) have gotten a leg up by creating a structure that rips cancer cells apart from the inside.

Attacking the Structure

The team was guided by an interest in finding alternative ways to destroy cancer cells that didn’t rely on chemotherapy, which can become ineffective over time and has serious side effects.

“We have now tried to take a different approach and not to influence the cancer by interfering with the biochemical processes, but to attack its structure directly,” says Dr. David Ng, group leader in Tanja Weil’s department at the MPI-P.

So the solution they hit upon was to use tiny molecular building blocks, which a statement about the work compares to LEGO bricks. The bricks themselves are harmless—until they get inside a cancer cell.

“In cancer tissue, the environment is much more acidic than in normal tissue,” said Ng. “In addition, much more highly reactive oxidative molecules are found within the cancer cells due to the cancer’s increased metabolic activity—and we take advantage of that.”

When the bricks sense both the presence of the oxidative molecules and the acidic environment, they begin to connect, building a web that gets bigger and bigger and starts to stretch the cancer cell to its breaking point. Under this physical stress, the cancer cell initiates its own self-destruction and is neutralized.

“We thus attack the cancer cell in a way it cannot defend itself against,” says Ng.

In lab research, the molecular bricks were able to blast apart cancer cells in about four hours. In their continuing work, Ng and his team hope to figure out ways to encourage the molecular webs to biodegrade once the cancer cells are destroyed.

Their work has been published in the peer-reviewed Journal of the American Chemical Society.