Roundworm-Eating Fungus May Kill Cancer

Cancer fighting nanoparticles secreted by a fungus may lead to new therapy

(RxWiki News) A lowly flesh-eating fungus that feasts on a diet of roundworms may have a higher purpose. Tiny particles produced by the fungus may be able to stimulate the immune system and stop cancer.

In ancient Greek, nano means dwarf, and nanoparticles are super-small particles measured in nanometers. They’re often too tiny to see with a microscope.

Research investigators have found that nanoparticles produced by a fungus may boost the immune system and kill cancer cells.

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Mingjun Zhang, associate professor in the Nano Bio-Systems Lab at the Department of Mechanical, Aerospace and Biomedical Engineering at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville, led research examining the properties of nanoparticles secreted by this particular roundworm-devouring fungus.

The arthrobotrys oligospora fungus has a big appetite for nematodes, more commonly known as roundworms. These fungi have a special ability to create rings that capture, kill, and digest roundworms. Roundworms typically thrive in soils that are rich in organic content—often areas where excrement has collected.

But don’t feel bad for the roundworms. Many are parasitic and can live on or in humans, where they can cause a variety of health problems, according to the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. Mature adult roundworms, for example, can live in human intestines and cause infection and disease.

In studying the properties of roundworms, Professor Zhang discovered that the fungus secretes nanocomposites made up of highly uniform nanoparticles.

Nanoparticles react very fast, making them useful as catalysts to speed up reactions. Scientists have recently found that some nanoparticles can help deliver drugs for cancer treatment. Cancer therapies work most effectively when they are delivered quickly and reach specific cancer cells.

“In addition, their small size allows them to easily cross cell membranes, an essential requirement for cancer therapy,” said Professor Zhang.

In a lab study, Professor Zhang and his colleagues discovered the nanoparticles both stimulate the immune system and produce a toxic reaction in cancer cells, thus killing them.

"This study could be the entrance into a gold mine of new materials to treat cancers," said Professor Zhang. He highlights that understanding how these nanostructures are formed in nature will help scientists understand how to synthesize them for the creation of new medicines.

"This exciting discovery is the first step forward in the development of natural nanoparticle-based therapeutics for cancer treatment and demonstrates the importance of looking to nature for innovation in disease treatment," said Zhang.

Professor Zhang told the dailyRx News, “We are currently working on further characterizing the unique antitumor properties of nanoparticles. Though it is still a distance away for being used on cancer patients, we see promise and expect to report progress soon.”

This study was published in the December issue of Advanced Functional Materials. The research was funded by the Biochemistry Program in the Life Sciences Division of the US Army Research Office.

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Review Date: 
December 10, 2012