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Nanotechnology helps visualize how cancer cells spread

Golden silk spider Photo credit: Wikipedia
Golden silk spider Photo credit: Wikipedia

Cancer cells are incredibly flexible about promoting their own movement and growth in the body. They can travel through blood vessels as thin as spider silk. They even change their shape to do so, yet are still able to divide and cluster into colonies in those very skinny spaces. That spreading through the body is called metastasis, and it’s what makes cancer turn deadly.

Researchers are now putting nanotechnology to work to help decipher exactly how cancer cells perform this extraordinary feat. An article in Nanotechnology Now reports:

The researchers trapped live cancer cells in the tubular membranes and, with optical high- and super-resolution microscopy, could see how the cells adapted to the confined environment. Cell structures significantly changed in the nanomembranes, but it appeared that membrane blebbing — the formation of bulges — at the cells’ tips helped keep genetic material stable, an important requirement for healthy cell division.

For more details, check out this one-minute video on how scientists used microtubular membranes to study how cancer cells divide in capillaries.


Making organs clear to track nanoparticle meds

Molecular imaging for cancer cells
Molecular imaging for cancer cells

One of the biggest promises of nanomedicine is that doctors will be able to deliver needed medications directly to a site within your body without negatively affecting other tissues. That’s still a moving target, though.

One of the most challenging obstacles is the density and opaqueness of human tissue such as blood vessel walls and organs. A recent study reported in ACS nano (American Chemical Society Nano) has revealed a way to more accurately track where nanoparticles go once inside the body by allowing visibility a little deeper into living tissue. A gel, injected into tissues removed from mice, linked all the molecules of the tissue together except for lipids – the substances responsible for making tissue opaque. Lipids washed easily away and “left the tissues clear but otherwise intact.”

Lest you picture a big chunk of clear material, the actual depth to which researchers could image nanoparticles was only 1 millimeter, but that’s 25 times deeper than with existing methods. The hope is that in addition to helping track nanoparticles, this approach will assist researchers with tissue engineering, implant and biosensor applications.

Slowly, we peel away one tiny layer at a time from the mysteries of nature.

Transgenic salmon: Is the FDA qualified to say it’s safe?

EPA headquarters in Washington, DC Photo credit: Wikipedia
EPA headquarters in Washington, DC – Photo credit: Wikipedia

U.S. Federal regulators have approved a fast-growing transgenic salmon as the first genetically engineered animal raised for human consumption. But like so many dramatic advances in science, is it a historic breakthrough, or might we be putting the environment at risk because the approval process for the technology isn’t stringent enough?

Auburn University’s Conner Bailey thinks it’s open to debate, according to a press release from Routledge of Taylor and Francis. In a recent policy review in Society & Natural Resources, Bailey suggests the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) may not be the appropriate agency to approve genetically engineered animals.

The article states the FDA was designated regulator for genetically engineered products in the U.S. only because of a Federal decision made in 1986 (updated in 1992) that established the Coordinated Framework for the Regulation of Biotechnology. This framework was supposed to divide responsibilities over such products among the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the FDA.

While Bailey’s article was working its way through the peer review process, the Obama Administration ordered the agencies to reconsider how transgenic animals and plans are reviewed and subsequently approved, and gave them one year to do it. Despite this order, the FDA’s Nov. 19 decision to approve production and consumption of a transgenic salmon will stand.

Bailey contends the FDA should not be making such determinations alone. “The FDA is ill-equipped, on its own, to make a science-based decision on ecological impacts,” Bailey said. While their staff are experts on questions of food safety, they’re unqualified on issues associated with aquatic ecology and aquaculture. “The risk of releasing what is essentially an exotic species into the wild is real and potentially significant.” The agency’s recent action is precedent setting, said Bailey, and likely will lead to the adoption of genetic engineering in other fish species and possibly other animals as well.

Read a free copy of the review from Society & Natural Resources, Volume 28, Issue 11, 2015, Pages 1249-1260. Transgenic Salmon: Science, Politics and Flawed Policy. A link to a key resource used in preparation of this policy review can be found here.