Tiny Buckyballs Could Put Fast-Spreading Cancer Cells into Suspended Animation

But their effect in normal cells may prove toxic for the body

Adorable buckyballs can act as soccer-ball-shaped molecular cages to deliver designer drugs or even radioactive particles to attack diseases such as cancer. Now scientists have found that a certain buckyball configuration can put human skin cells into a sort of suspended animation where they don’t die, divide, or grow — a toxic condition for the human body that might also lead to possible treatments.

This is a first-time finding for buckyballs, which are nanoparticles the size of a virus and consist of 60 carbon atoms each. But experts have been warning about the possible risks of nanotechnology already found in many consumer products and types of research.

Toxicologists at the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico exposed human skin cells to several types of buckyballs. One tris configuration of buckyballs had three molecular branches coming off the main structural body in one hemisphere, a hexa configuration had six branches arranged in a symmetrical pattern, and the last was a plain buckyball.

The cells exposed to the tris buckyballs entered the suspended animation state, which could lead to problems with normal organ development and possibly disease in a living organism. The tris configuration may also interfere with the body’s normal immune response against viruses.

That lead the researchers to suggest that any nanomaterials using buckyballs should use the non-toxic hexa configuration. But they’re excited about possibly turning the tris buckyballs into a weapon for halting the spread of cancer cells or delaying the onset of Parkinson’s or Alzheimer’s in nerve cells.

It’s all some heavy stuff to consider for such small nanoparticles. You can put yourself into a cheerier state of mind with this video by artist Alyce Santoro showing how to make a large buckyball replica out of ice cream cones.