Corporate Banner
Satellite Banner
Scientific Community
Become a Member | Sign in
Home>News>This Article

The Gold Standard for Cell Penetration

Published: Friday, August 23, 2013
Last Updated: Friday, August 23, 2013
Bookmark and Share
Gold nanoparticles with special coatings can deliver drugs or biosensors to a cell’s interior without damaging it.

Cells are very good at protecting their precious contents — and as a result, it’s very difficult to penetrate their membrane walls to deliver drugs, nutrients or biosensors without damaging or destroying the cell. One effective way of doing so, discovered in 2008, is to use nanoparticles of pure gold, coated with a thin layer of a special polymer. But nobody knew exactly why this combination worked so well, or how it made it through the cell wall.

Now, researchers at MIT and the Ecole Polytechnique de Lausanne in Switzerland have figured out how the process works, and the limits on the sizes of particles that can be used. Their analysis appears in the journal Nano Letters, in a paper by graduate students Reid Van Lehn, Prabhani Atukorale, Yu-Sang Yang and Randy Carney and professors Alfredo Alexander-Katz, Darrell Irvine and Francesco Stellacci.

Until now, says Van Lehn, the paper’s lead author, “the mechanism was unknown. … In this work, we wanted to simplify the process and understand the forces” that allow gold nanoparticles to penetrate cell walls without permanently damaging the membranes or rupturing the cells. The researchers did so through a combination of lab experiments and computer simulations.

The team demonstrated that the crucial first step in the process is for coated gold nanoparticles to fuse with the lipids — a category of natural fats, waxes and vitamins — that form the cell wall. The scientists also demonstrated an upper limit on the size of such particles that can penetrate the cell wall — a limit that depends on the composition of the particle’s coating.

The coating applied to the gold particles consists of a mix of hydrophobic and hydrophilic components that form a monolayer — a layer just one molecule thick — on the particle’s surface. Any of several different compounds can be used, the researchers explain.

“Cells tend to engulf things on the surface,” says Alexander-Katz, an associate professor of materials science and engineering at MIT, but it’s “very unusual” for materials to cross that membrane into the cell’s interior without causing major damage. Irvine and Stellacci demonstrated in 2008 that monolayer-coated gold nanoparticles could do so; they have since been working to better understand why and how that works.

Since the nanoparticles themselves are completely coated, the fact that they are made of gold doesn’t have any direct effect, except that gold nanoparticles are an easily prepared model system, the researchers say. However, there is some evidence that the gold particles have therapeutic properties, which could be a side benefit.

Gold particles are also very good at capturing X-rays — so if they could be made to penetrate cancer cells, and were then heated by a beam of X-rays, they could destroy those cells from within. “So the fact that it’s gold may be useful,” says Irvine, a professor of materials science and engineering and biological engineering and member of the Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research.

Significantly, the mechanism that allows the nanoparticles to pass through the membrane seems also to seal the opening as soon as the particle has passed. “They would go through without allowing even small molecules to leak through behind them,” Van Lehn says.

Irvine says that his lab is also interested in harnessing this cell-penetrating mechanism as a way of delivering drugs to the cell’s interior, by binding them to the surface coating material. One important step in making that a useful process, he says, is finding ways to allow the nanoparticle coatings to be selective about what types of cells they attach to. “If it’s all cells, that’s not very useful,” he says, but if the coatings can be targeted to a particular cell type that is the target of a drug, that could be a significant benefit.

Another potential application of this work could be in attaching or inserting biosensing molecules on or into certain cells, Van Lehn says. In this way, scientists could detect or monitor specific biochemical markers, such as proteins that indicate the onset or decline of a disease or a metabolic process.

In general, attachment to nanoparticles’ surface coatings could provide a key to cells’ interiors for “molecules that normally wouldn’t have any ability to get through the cell membrane,” Irvine says.

Vince Rotello, a professor of chemistry at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst who was not involved in this research, says this work is “careful, well thought out and elegantly presented.” He adds, “This study provides a very interesting alternative mechanism to cell uptake of nanomaterials that could open up new therapeutic pathways.”

The work was supported by the National Science Foundation, the National Cancer Institute and the U.S. Army Research Office.

Further Information
Access to this exclusive content is for Technology Networks Premium members only.

Join Technology Networks Premium for free access to:

  • Exclusive articles
  • Presentations from international conferences
  • Over 2,800+ scientific posters on ePosters
  • More than 4,000+ scientific videos on LabTube
  • 35 community eNewsletters

Sign In

Forgotten your details? Click Here
If you are not a member you can join here

*Please note: By logging into you agree to accept the use of cookies. To find out more about the cookies we use and how to delete them, see our privacy policy.

Related Content

Using Ultrasound to Improve Drug Delivery
New approach could aid in treatment of inflammatory bowel disease.
Friday, October 23, 2015
Drug-Resistance Mechanism in Tumor Cells Unravelled
Targeting the RNA-binding protein that promotes resistance could lead to better cancer therapies.
Friday, October 23, 2015
Biologists Find Unexpected Role for Amyloid-Forming Protein
Yeast protein could offer clues to how Alzheimer’s plaques form in the brain.
Monday, September 28, 2015
Viruses Join Fight Against Harmful Bacteria
Engineered viruses could combat human disease and improve food safety.
Friday, September 25, 2015
Targeting DNA
Protein-based sensor could detect viral infection or kill cancer cells.
Tuesday, September 22, 2015
A Metabolic Master Switch Underlying Human Obesity
Researchers find pathway that controls metabolism by prompting fat cells to store or burn fat.
Friday, August 21, 2015
Identifying a Key Growth Factor in Cell Proliferation
Researchers discover that aspartate is a limiter of cell proliferation.
Friday, July 31, 2015
Firms “Under-invest” in Long-Term Cancer Research
Tweaks to the R&D pipeline could create new drugs and greater social benefit.
Thursday, July 30, 2015
Nanoparticles Can Clean Up Environmental Pollutants
Researchers have found that nanomaterials and UV light can “trap” chemicals for easy removal from soil and water.
Thursday, July 23, 2015
Tough biogel structures produced by 3-D printing
Researchers have developed a new way of making tough — but soft and wet — bio-compatible materials, called “hydrogels,” into complex and intricately patterned shapes.
Wednesday, June 03, 2015
Diagnosing Cancer with Help from Bacteria
Engineered probiotics can detect tumors in the liver.
Friday, May 29, 2015
Master Gene Regulator Could Be New Target For Schizophrenia Treatment
Researchers at MIT’s Picower Institute for Learning and Memory have identified a master genetic regulator that could account for faulty brain functions that contribute to schizophrenia.
Wednesday, May 27, 2015
Designing Better Medical Implants
A team of MIT researchers have discovered a novel method for reducing the typical immune system rejection response when implanting biomedical devices into the body.
Wednesday, May 20, 2015
Brain Tumor Weakness Identified
Discovery could offer a new target for treatment of glioblastoma.
Thursday, April 09, 2015
New Nanodevice Defeats Drug Resistance
Tiny particles embedded in gel can turn off drug-resistance genes, then release cancer drugs.
Wednesday, March 04, 2015
Scientific News
New Class of RNA Tumor Suppressors Identified
Two short, “housekeeping” RNA molecules block cancer growth by binding to an important cancer-associated protein called KRAS. More than a quarter of all human cancers are missing these RNAs.
Mathematical Model Forecasts the Path of Breast Cancer
Chances of survival depend on which organs breast cancer tumors colonize first.
Exploring the Causes of Cancer
Queen's research to understand the regulation of a cell surface protein involved in cancer.
Nanocarriers May Carry New Hope for Brain Cancer Therapy
Berkeley lab researchers develop nanoparticles that can carry therapeutics across the brain blood barrier.
RNA-Based Drugs Give More Control Over Gene Editing
CRISPR/Cas9 gene editing technique can be transiently activated and inactivated using RNA-based drugs, giving researchers more precise control in correcting and inactivating genes.
University of Glasgow Researchers Make An Impact in 60 Seconds
Early-career researchers were invited to submit an engaging, dynamic and compelling 60 second video illuminating an aspect of their research.
Metabolic Profiles Distinguish Early Stage Ovarian Cancer with Unprecedented Accuracy
Studying blood serum compounds of different molecular weights has led scientists to a set of biomarkers that may enable development of a highly accurate screening test for early-stage ovarian cancer.
Dead Bacteria to Kill Colorectal Cancer
Scientists from Nanyang Technological University (NTU Singapore) have successfully used dead bacteria to kill colorectal cancer cells.
CRISPR-Cas9 Gene Editing: Check Three Times, Cut Once
Two new studies from UC Berkeley should give scientists who use CRISPR-Cas9 for genome engineering greater confidence that they won’t inadvertently edit the wrong DNA.
Genetically Engineering Algae to Kill Cancer Cells
New interdisciplinary research has revealed the frontline role tiny algae could play in the battle against cancer, through the innovative use of nanotechnology.

Skyscraper Banner
Go to LabTube
Go to eposters
Access to the latest scientific news
Exclusive articles
Upload and share your posters on ePosters
Latest presentations and webinars
View a library of 1,800+ scientific and medical posters
2,800+ scientific and medical posters
A library of 2,500+ scientific videos on LabTube
4,000+ scientific videos