Metal From Dinosaur-Killing Asteroid Kills Cancer Cells When Blasted With Light

Iridium, a metal associated with the asteroid that ended the Cretaceous era can act like a stealth bomb, entering the nucleus of a cancer cell. When hit with a burst of light, it causes nearby oxygen molecules to become reactive, killing the cell. Whether this can be turned into a viable mechanism for fighting cancer in living things remains to be seen, but it's hard to dispute it would be the coolest anti-cancer therapy ever.

Certain molecules, when exposed to light, produce oxidizing agents. These are much more harmful to fast-dividing cancer cells than to healthy cells. If the right molecules can reach the nuclei of cancer cells, which then get lit up using optical fibers, it should be possible to destroy tumors without harming nearby healthy cells. Professor Peter Sadler of Warwick University has shown in Angewandte Chemie International Edition an iridium complex performs the oxidizer production role particularly well.

What iridium complex doesn't do on its own is travel to where it is needed. However, Sadler has a solution to that. The blood protein albumin is not only attracted to cancer cells, but penetrates their nucleus, and can carry an iridium payload.

“It is fascinating how albumin can deliver our photosensitizer so specifically to the nucleus, co-author Dr Cinzia Imberti said in a statement.

When combined with albumin, Sadler's iridium complex has two advantages over previous photosensitizers; it targets the cell nucleus, rather than the less essential parts of the cell, and is strongly luminescent. The second trait means scientists don't just need to assume success based on a trail of destroyed cancer cells, they can watch in real time as the molecules do their work.

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