Designing Nanomaterials to Help Fight Disease

May 28, 2019

By Lida Tunisi

Scientists have developed a new nanomaterial structure with the potential to someday perform drug delivery or help fight cancer.

How tiny are nanomaterials? Well, they’re designed on the scale of the nanometer, roughly the length that a fingernail grows in one second.

In medicine, these minuscule materials have some advantages over what we think of as “normal” drugs. For instance, researchers can design nanomaterials to respond in specific ways to certain actors in the body, which can help target diseased cells.

Peptide nanostructures

Now, a group of scientists led by researchers at the Advanced Science Research Center at The Graduate Center, CUNY, have developed a nanomaterial structure that interacts with a disease-associated enzyme called matrix metalloproteinase-9, or MMP-9. The material is non-toxic and modifiable, with the potential to someday perform drug delivery or help fight cancer.

The MMP-9 enzyme occurs naturally in our bodies and is important for everyday functioning of cells. However, an abundance of MMP-9 in the body is associated with cancer metastasis, cardiovascular disease, and arthritis. This makes the enzyme a natural marker for these diseases.

The newly developed nanomaterial is made of chains of amino acids, known as peptides. When it meets MMP-9 in the body, it biodegrades, which could someday provide a method of releasing drugs in diseased areas. Alternatively, by changing out a few amino acids the researchers can modify the material to instead form nanofibers upon interacting with the enzyme. Scientists have found these fibers to be toxic to cancer cells.

“This work is a critical step toward creating new smart-drug delivery vehicles and diagnostic methods with precisely tunable properties that could change the face of disease treatment and management,” said ASRC Nanoscience Initiative Director Rein Ulijn, corresponding author on the study, which was published in ACS Publications: ACS Nano. Postdoctoral research associate Mohit Kumar, research assistant Mike Cornejo, Ph.D. student Jiye Son, Professor Maria Contel of Brooklyn College, postdoctoral research assistant Daniela Kalafatovic, and Barney Yoo, director of Hunter Mass Spectrometry, were also authors on the paper.

Though the researchers created a nanomaterial that interacts with MMP-9, Ulijn said, the ideas and methods used could help in designing nanostructures that respond to other stimuli in the body.