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Using Sperm to Deliver Cancer Drugs

New research suggests the swimming power of sperm can be commandeered to carry chemo drugs directly to cervical tumors.

Mary Bates, Contributor
Monday, January 8, 2018


Giovanni Cancemi via Shutterstock


In recent years, researchers have focused on developing ways to deliver drugs like chemotherapy agents specifically to cancer cells to minimize treatment side effects. However, this effort is not without challenges — drugs can get diluted in body fluids or not travel deeply enough through tissues to reach the cancer cells.

A new study in the journal ACS Nano identifies a potential natural, self-propelled carrier to deliver helpful drugs to cancers in the female reproductive tract: sperm.

The researchers packaged a common cancer drug called doxorubicin into bovine sperm cells. Then they fitted the sperm cells with tiny, four-armed magnetic harnesses, enabling the researchers to guide the sperm with magnets. When the hijacked sperm were released in a dish containing lab-grown cervical cancer tumor cells, they swam toward the tumors.

When the sperm hit a solid tumor, the harness arms sprang open. This released the sperm and allowed them to swim into the tumor, where they fused their membranes with those of the cancer cells and released their drug payload. The drug-laden sperm killed 87 percent of the tumor cells within three days while losing very little of the drug en route.

Further work is needed to test the system in animal models and eventually people. But someday, according to the researchers, these hybrid sperm motors could be used to treat cancer and other diseases in the female reproductive tract.