Strap an iron helmet on a sperm cell, soak it in anti-cancer drugs, and you may have the formula for a highly targeted seek-and-destroy cancer-fighting system – at least that’s what a cutting-edge study envisions.
Researchers from a nanotech institute in Germany have successfully microengineered living sperm cells to act as a lethal tumor destroyer, according to a study published in the journal ACS Nano.
All their work so far has been conducted in vitro – or in the lab – but the novel findings offer an exciting glimpse of precision medicine using organic matter to combat cancer. Unlike other drug delivery systems that scientists are currently investigating, using sperm can avoid unintended consequences, such as the in-body growth of bacteria-driven techniques.
“Overall, sperm cells are excellent candidates to operate in physiological environments, as they neither express pathogenic proteins nor proliferate to form undesirable colonies, unlike other cells or microorganisms,” report the researchers from the Institute of Integrative Neurosciences in ACS Nano.
The exciting findings combine a range of new techniques that, one day, may offer plausible treatment options for gynecological cancers in women, which impact nearly 100,000 women per year in the U.S., according to statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Using bull sperm, which closely mimics human sperm, the researchers first soaked the sperm in an active cancer-fighting agent. Once the sperm was saturated, they coaxed it to swim into a type of helmet that tightened around the head of the sperm. Because the tiny helmet device is made of iron, the researchers then employed a magnetic field to direct the sperm to a precise location – namely, a tumor or cancer cell.
Upon contact with the target, the sperm breaks free of the helmet and enters the tissue cell with the goal of delivering cancer-killing drugs. So far, the experiments have proven successful in the lab. The sperm-directed treatment has shown to enter cancer cells and destroy them from within.
As the researchers pursue additional testing, they believe the benefits of human sperm may lead to effective treatments without unintended side effects. For example, the sperm have proven to carry drugs without unintentionally spilling them inside the body to a degree that’s more effective than other, non-sperm-based methods.
A few significant questions remain. The researchers continue to assess how the body may deal with the iron-coated harness that falls off after impact, and they’re also looking into how many sperm cells they can effectively deliver to a tumor site during a given treatment window.
Yet the potential benefits are tantalizing. “The sperm cells exhibited a high drug encapsulation capability and drug carrying stability, conveniently minimizing toxic side effects and unwanted drug accumulation in healthy tissues,” wrote the authors in ACS Nano.
“This sperm-hybrid micromotor is a biocompatible platform with potential application in gynecological health care, treating or detecting cancer or other diseases in the female reproductive system,” they added.
Richard Scott is a health care reporter focusing on health policy and public health. Richard keeps tabs on national health trends from his Philadelphia location and is an active member of the Association of Health Care Journalists.