Scientists kill 99% of cancer cells in lab using new ‘vibrating molecule’ technique

Early-stage research in which 99 percent of melanoma cells are destroyed in a lab could provide new cancer treatment options, experts say.


US scientists have found a way to kill cancer cells by stimulating molecules with near-infrared light and making them vibrate.

The researchers found the method to be 99 percent effective against laboratory cultures of human melanoma cells.

Their method involves making a small dye molecule used in medical imaging vibrate by stimulating it with near-infrared light.

It forms something called a plasmon, which is the rapid oscillation of the electrons in the molecule back and forth, similar to waves in the sea. This causes the membrane of the cancer cells to rupture.

The findings were published in December in Natural chemistry.

“The vibration activated by near-infrared light means that everything surrounded by the molecule will be destroyed, in this case the cancer cell,” Cicero Ayala-Orozco, a researcher at Rice University in the US and lead author of the study, told Euronews Next.

While researchers have so far found the “molecular sledgehammer” method to be effective in the lab and in mice, “the challenge is to translate that” into treatment options in humans, he added. But that will probably take a long time.

He hopes that instead of 15 to 20 years from clinical application, they could prove the safety of the molecular hammers more quickly.

“A similar class of molecules is already in clinical use,” which Ayala-Orozco hopes will “accelerate the clinical translation” of the research.

The main obstacles to applying this type of method to humans are potential “side effects and toxicity,” he added.

“New ways to treat cancer”

Dr Nisharnthi Duggan, head of scientific engagement at Cancer Research UK, who was not involved in the study, said “a major challenge in cancer research is designing drugs to which cancer cells will not become resistant”.

“This study raises the possibility of using infrared light to stimulate certain molecules to vibrate and kill cells, a process to which they are unlikely to develop resistance. This is very early-stage research, but the idea could lead to new ways of treating certain types of cancer,” she added.

Scientists at Rice University have previously used light-activated molecules to kill bacteria, cancer cells and fungi, and with visible light rather than ultraviolet radiation to do so.

However, this new method uses molecular impactors that are much faster than previously used molecular motors, based on the work of Nobel Laureate Bernard Ferringa.

“Every time light hits a molecule, that molecule begins to expand and contract,” Ayala-Ozosco explained. “In one second the molecule will oscillate or vibrate one trillion times.”

“It’s so fast that from the mechanical forces around the molecule because of that vibration, it will take biological structures apart,” he said.

Near-infrared light can also penetrate deeper into the body than visible light, the researchers added.

The therapeutic effect of molecular sledgehammers has been tested in mice by administering them by intratumoral injection. This means they injected the molecules directly into the melanoma tumors.


Of the 10 mice in one of the four groups, five were tumor-free at seven months, making the method about 50 percent effective.

“At the right dose, the molecule is safe,” says Ayala-Ozoko, and once the beam of light is activated on the tumor, it will kill the tumor cells that are illuminated.

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