Taking inspiration from nature to trap cancer cells

cancer cells

Cancer cells under the microscope


Dr Daniel Frankel at Newcastle University is looking to the animal world for inspiration as he researches how to improve surgery to remove sarcomas.  

He’s studying the naked mole-rat – a remarkable creature that is native to parts of East Africa, can live for up to 30 years, and is extremely resistant to cancer.

Recent studies have attributed this animal’s cancer resistance to the presence of an ultra-heavy form of a molecule called hyaluronan, which forms part of the ‘scaffolding’ that surrounds all cells. This specific molecule’s function is thought to be both mechanical and biological, influencing how cells move and stick to one another. It seems that the naked mole-rat’s version of hyaluronan is much heavier than the human version, forming a thick, stiff gel that has a greater ability to ‘lock in’ cells and prevent them from moving.

When cancer cells break away from their original site and invade other parts of the body, the disease becomes much harder to treat and the chances of survival fall dramatically. So preventing cancer cells from moving is what is believed to make the naked mole-rat more resistant to cancer than humans. His team are using various techniques to compare the properties of naked mole-rat hyaluronan and to that found in human tissues, and also determine which structural characteristics are responsible for the anti-cancer properties.

Dr Frankel is working alongside orthopaedic surgeon Mr Kenneth Rankin to use this knowledge to create a new synthetic ‘biomaterial’ that mimics the properties of naked mole-rat hyaluronan. This could be applied during tumour removal surgeries to trap any lurking cancer cell stragglers and prevent them from spreading.

If successful, this new biomaterial could transform long-term survival for people with a range of cancers, but it could be particularly beneficial for people with bone sarcoma, as this type of cancer frequently returns after surgery.

The research is being carried out using a Multidisciplinary Project Award from Cancer Research UK in partnership with the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) – the main UK funding agency for training and research in engineering and physical sciences – to bring together their expert networks and speed up progress in multidisciplinary research.