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Barbecue test kills cancer cells

New research is being explored to kill off cancer cells that involves "barbecuing" them with microscopic carbon molecules known as nanotubes.

The technique, which is being developed by scientists at the University of Texas in America, uses infra-red light to heat up the carbon nanotubes in a similar way to charcoal on a barbecue. The heated nanotubes then "cook" and destroy the cancer cells.

Carbon nanotubes are tiny hollow molecules of carbon a minute fraction of the width of a human hair. They have several novel properties, including being very efficient heat conductors.

Researchers at the university's South-western Medical Centre in Dallas first coated the nanotubes with tumour-seeking antibodies, allowing them to "home in" on cancer cells. The nanotubes were then used to attack lymphoma cancer cells.

After latching onto the cells, the carbon molecules were exposed to near infra-red light, quickly heating up and killing the cancerous white blood cells. However, nanotubes coated with a different antibody did not attach to the cells or kill them, showing that the treatment could be targeted.

The study, reported in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, is the first to show that carbon nanotube and antibody "complexes" can target and destroy specific cancer cells.

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Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences