Researchers have developed a novel approach to cancer treatment using the carbon-based nanomaterial graphene to target cancer stem cells (CSCs).
The findings suggest that graphene could be used to kill off the reservoir of CSCs, which are frequently responsible for the spread or recurrence of cancer, and often left behind by currently available treatments.
The paper, published in the journal Oncotarget, showed that graphene oxide flakes were effective across six different cancer cell types including breast, lung and pancreatic cancers.
'Cancer stem cells differentiate to form a small mass of cells known as a tumour-sphere. We saw that the graphene oxide flakes prevented CSCs from forming these, and instead forced them to differentiate into non-cancer stem cells,' explained study author Dr Aravind Vijayaraghavan from the University of Manchester.
Furthermore, using a line of skin cells, the researchers found that graphene oxide appeared to be non-toxic to healthy cells.
CSCs act as the foundations of a tumour and therefore even if the 'bulk' of tumour is destroyed, if this cell population remains, it is capable of regrowing.
'Cancer stem cells possess the ability to give rise to many different tumour cell types,' explained Professor Michael Lisanti, Director of the Manchester Centre for Cellular Metabolism. 'They are responsible for the spread of cancer within the body - known as metastasis - which is responsible for 90 percent of cancer deaths.'
As conventional radiation and chemotherapies only kill the 'bulk' cancer cells, the researchers suggest that graphene oxide could be used in conjunction with existing treatments to prevent tumour recurrence.
'Graphene oxide could possibly be applied as a lavage or rinse during surgery to clear CSCs or as a drug targeted at CSCs,' added co-author Dr Federica Sotgia, also from the University of Manchester.
Since its Nobel-prize winning discovery in 2004, graphene has shown potential in a range of technologies. Research regarding its application in cancer treatment has largely revolved around use in drug delivery. However, 'in this work, surprisingly, it's the graphene oxide itself that has been shown to be an effective anti-cancer drug,' said Dr Vijayaraghavan.
He added: 'Naturally, any new discovery such as this needs to undergo extensive study and trials before emerging as a therapeutic. We hope that these exciting results in laboratory cell cultures can translate into an equally effective real-life option for cancer therapy.'