Using Engineered Algae as the Next Potential Targeted Chemotherapy for Cancer?

by Carolyn Sotka


Diatoms under the microscope. Image from David Darling and Encyclopedia of Science. 

One of the biggest challenges in cancer treatments is developing therapies that target diseased cells but do not harm healthy ones. New interdisciplinary research has revealed the frontline role tiny algae could play in the battle against cancer, through the innovative use of nanotechnology – or the manipulation of very small molecules at the atomic level.


Microscopic views showing the highly porous surface of diatoms. Image from Nature Communications

The team of Nico Voelcker, Ph.D at the University of South Australia and collaborators in Dresden, Germany, have genetically engineered diatom algae to become therapeutic nanoporous particles, which, when loaded with chemotherapeutic drugs can be used to destroy cancer cells in the human body, without harming healthy cells.

Details of this research: “Targeted drug delivery using genetically engineered diatom biosilica” are being published in the latest edition of Nature Communications, this week and Professor Voelcker explains the potential benefits of this method to combat cancer.


Genetically engineered diatom biosilica (green) contain liposome-encapsulated drug molecules (yellow) can be targeted to cancerous cells (red) and purple) Image from Nature Communications

“By genetically engineering diatom algae – tiny, unicellular, photosynthesizing algae with a skeleton made of nanoporous silica, we are able to produce an antibody-binding protein on the surface of their shells,” Prof Voelcker says.

“Anti-cancer chemotherapeutic drugs are often toxic to normal tissues. To minimize the off-target toxicity, the drugs can be hidden inside the antibody-coated nanoparticles.

“The antibody binds only to molecules found on cancer cells, thus delivering the toxic drug specifically to the target cells.”

As the Strand Leader in Biomaterials Engineering & Nanomedicine at the University of South Australia’s Future Industries Institute, Professor Voelcker highlights how this type of research could influence future health care:

“Although it is still early days, this novel drug delivery system based on a biotechnologically tailored, renewable material holds a lot of potential for the therapy of solid tumors including currently untreatable brain tumors.”

So, in addition to algae producing most of the oxygen in our atmosphere, these unicellular powerhouses look promising to treat and possibly cure cancer. Thank you ocean. – CS


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