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Graphene Helps Fight Cancer
March 3, 2014   
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Graphene, the revolutionary new material with myriad potential applications, can now also be used in medicine to effectively destroy cancer cells, according to scientists at the Warsaw University of Life Sciences (SGGW).

Graphene attaches to the tumor cell and forms a thin layer around it, cutting off the supply of oxygen and nutrients, which leads to the cell’s death, the researchers say.

Built of carbon atoms, graphene is 100 to 300 times harder than steel. Scientists call it the material of the future. It is perfectly suited for the production of thin, flexible, and durable touchscreens, innovative semiconductors and supercapacitors used in electric vehicles. It also offers a huge range of potential applications in industries including aeronautics and the automotive industry, in addition to energy generation and storage, materials engineering, and environmental protection. It now turns out that graphene can also be used to help fight cancer.

The Warsaw researchers say graphene interacts with a cancer cell membrane, influencing its receptors and inducing programmed cell death, thus reducing the tumor. Preliminary studies show that graphene flakes adhere to the tumor cell, disrupting the functioning of its membrane, the researchers say. In this way, they apparently isolate the cell from its environment and cause it to die. The research is still at a preliminary stage and it is not known when the method could be applied in practice.

Graphene consists of a single layer of carbon atoms that form a flat, practically two-dimensional grid (length and width) with hexagonal meshes and a honeycomb structure.

Graphene forms a thin, nearly impermeable layer around cancer cells. As a result, it impairs transport and signaling processes between the cells, and systematically destroys the structure of the cell membrane, leading to cell death.

“Graphene oxide exhibits even more interesting properties,” says Prof. Ewa Sawosz-Chwalibóg, the head of the research project team. “It has the ability to penetrate cells and affects their biological cycle, thus reducing the rate of cell proliferation.” The use of graphene, especially graphene oxide, is safe for the patient because its fundamental structural material, carbon, is quite friendly to human tissue, Sawosz-Chwalibóg says. She adds that “so far the research results are excellent; graphene administered to the tumor causes a significant reduction in it.”

The scientists are working on cells from glioma—a type of tumor that starts in the brain or spine—but believe that their method can also be used to treat certain other cancers. Unlike in the case of chemicals used to treat cancer, graphene will not dissolve in water or body fluids, and its ability to move around the body is relatively small. As a result, it will not harm other tissues in the body, the researchers say.

In the case of some glioma cell lines, graphene induces the apoptosis of most cells. In others, this type of programmed cell death occurs in 70-80 percent of the cells.

“This means that the cell has been destroyed, but unfortunately not completely, which promotes the development of an inflammatory response,” says Sawosz-Chwalibóg. She adds that various types of glioma cells respond differently to graphene. This shows that cancer treatment should be personalized, because each patient may respond differently to the treatment, according to Sawosz-Chwalibóg.

Graphene not only kills cancer cells, but can also be an excellent carrier of other substances, Sawosz-Chwalibóg says. Active compounds such as drugs, proteins or nutrients needed by cells can be attached to it relatively easily. In such cases, a complex of graphene and attached compounds can be administered.

Sawosz-Chwalibóg is studying the biological properties of graphene together with a team of young researchers who include Marta Grodzik, Ph.D., S³awomir Jaworski, Marta Kutwin and Mateusz Wierzbicki. For now, the scientists are only conducting biological tests on animals, so it is difficult to say when their method for killing cancer cells with graphene can be applied in treating patients.

“We are only investigating the biological mechanisms; the next step—clinical trials—is for doctors to take,” says Sawosz-Chwalibóg.

The researchers are carrying out their research on human glioma cell lines and tumors grown from these cells. The cells are placed on a growing chicken embryo in an egg, and after a few days a real human glioma tumor develops. This unique method, initiated by Grodzik, makes it possible to monitor the development of a natural human tumor step by step.

In their work, the researchers use graphene obtained from the Warsaw-based Institute of Electronic Materials Technology, which has developed a graphene production method and is a leading center for graphene research internationally.

Experts describe graphene as an allotropic form of carbon. It was isolated and tested for the first time in 2004. For their research into graphene, Andre Geim and Konstantin Novoselov, two Russian-born professors from the University of Manchester in Britain, won the 2010 Nobel Prize in Physics.

Olga Majewska
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