The aim here is to deliver the protein to the blood vessels that supply the tumor with its nutrients and cut them off, effectively starving the cancerous cells.
The project was started 5 years ago, when the NCNST researchers first looked at cutting off the tumor blood supply by inducing blood coagulation using DNA-based nanocarriers.
"We have developed the first fully autonomous, DNA robotic system for a very precise drug design and targeted cancer therapy", said Professor Hao Yan, director of the Arizona State University Biodesign Institute's Centre for Molecular Design and Biomimetics.
These nano-machines are not miniaturised metal craft, as in science fiction, but instead use DNA fragments as a building block, precisely folded to fit its goal. In this case, the mechanical action is the springing open of the DNA sheet to reveal the blood-clotting drug. Origami has inspired everything from spacecraft to shields, and DNA origami - creating different shapes one thousand times smaller than a human hair using DNA strands - is an emerging field that could revolutionize drug delivery and treatment.
In a study published in the Nature journal, researchers said that they used DNA origami to construct the nanorobots, which were tasked with transporting payloads that will be released specifically to tumors. So instead of going directly after tumors, this research team simply sought to cut-off the tumors' blood supply.
"This ability can be harnessed to kill tumour cells by developing a system where the thrombin only causes clots in the blood vessels that are feeding the tumour, and not elsewhere in the body". This resulted in the shrinking of tumors and doubling of the median survival time of the mice, as well as causing some to go into complete remission.
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The studies were conducted on mice, and within two weeks they were seen to have a demonstrable effect on breast cancers, melanoma, ovarian and lung cancer in the animals.
Crucially, no clots were formed away from tumour sites, or in key organs in the heart, liver, lungs or kidney, verifying that the treatment was only targeting cancer cells.
"I think we are much closer to real, practical medical applications of the technology", Yan says. But the results of this new study are promising - Yan and the research team are now hoping to pursue clinical testing.
Professor Peter Dobson, from the University of Oxford, said: 'It is a neat idea and there is a lot of evidence in the paper to show that this is a promising approach'. "It should be said that it has only been done so far in animals".
The global team of researchers started with the goal of "finding a path to design nanorobots that can be applied to treatment of cancer in human [s]", writes coauthor Hao Yan of Arizona State University in an email to The Scientist.
"It would not presumably be specific enough if there were any other growing blood vessels present, for example in growing infants or in people with healing wounds".