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Nie Guangjun [File photo]

BEIJING -- Chinese scientists have folded DNA molecules in an origami-like process to make a nano "Trojan horse", which is thinner than 1/4000 of a hair and can release "killers" to fight cancer tumors.

Cancer cells need a lot of nutrition to multiply, but they don"t produce nutrient substances, said lead researcher Nie Guangjun, of China"s National Center for Nanoscience and Technology (NCNST).

All the blood, oxygen and energy are conveyed to cancer cells through blood vessels, so many scientists are trying to create blocks on the blood vessels feeding tumors.

Through precision control, researcher Ding Baoquan folded a single-strand DNA of a phage (a type of virus) into a rectangular sheet. Then he put four "killers" -- molecules of thrombin (a clotting enzyme in blood plasma) -- on the sheet and rolled them up.

At the interface, "locks" made by fragments of nucleolin protein DNA were installed, forming a tube-shaped nano "Trojan horse" or nanorobot, which is 90 nanometers long and has a diameter of 19 nanometers.

After injection, the "Trojan horse" travels in blood vessels and only tumors have the "key" to open the "locks." Once unlocked, the killer thrombin molecules are released, attracting platelets and fibrinogen protein to form a large thrombus, or clot, in the blood vessel within hours to cut off the blood supply and "starve" the tumor to death, Nie said.

The nanorobot can be cleared out of the body after it has finished its task.

Researchers have conducted controlled experiments on more than 200 mice with melanoma, breast cancer, ovarian cancer and primary lung cancer, and found the nanorobots are effective in strangling the tumors, Nie said.

In one experiment on eight mice with melanoma, the tumors in three mice totally disappeared. The average survival life of the mice was prolonged from 20.5 days to 45 days. No metastasis was found, according to Nie.

The incidence of malignant tumors has been rising in China in recent years, becoming a major health threat. Interventional embolization therapy has become the first therapeutic choice for patients with advanced liver cancer. About 600,000 to 800,000 Chinese with liver cancer receive interventional therapy every year.

However, patients face anesthetic risks in this therapy and doctors face exposure to X-ray radiation, so a safer, more effective and convenient treatment is a priority, and nanotechnology has opened new opportunities, Nie said.

The research began five years ago, when NCNST researchers first looked at cutting off the tumor blood supply by using DNA-based nano carriers.

Shi Quanwei, another member of the research team, said laboratory verification of the nanorobot idea has been completed, but industrial production and application of the nanorobot is still a long way off.

"We hope to attract investment to improve the production technique and enlarge the manufacturing scale of the nanorobot, and conduct further research on its effect and safety before application for clinical trials," Shi said.

"We need to make breakthroughs on technical bottlenecks, and hope to transform the basic research into practical therapy to benefit patients with tumors."

The research was recently selected as one of 30 winning projects at a contest of innovative future technologies in Shenzhen, South China"s Guangdong province. The contest encouraged young Chinese scientists to conceive groundbreaking technologies and trigger innovation.

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