Scientists, including one of Indian-origin, have used the ‘wonder material’ graphene to target and neutralise cancer stem cells while leaving healthy cells unharmed.

The development opens up the possibility of preventing or treating a broad range of cancers, using a non-toxic material.

Researchers at the University of Manchester in UK have shown that graphene oxide, a modified form of graphene, acts as an anti-cancer agent that selectively targets cancer stem cells (CSCs).

In combination with existing treatments, this could eventually lead to tumour shrinkage as well as preventing the spread of cancer and its recurrence after treatment.

However, more pre-clinical studies and extensive clinical trials will be necessary to move this forward into the clinic to ensure patient benefit, researchers said.

"Cancer stem cells possess the ability to give rise to many different tumour cell types. They are responsible for the spread of cancer within the body – known as metastasis – which is responsible for 90 per cent of cancer deaths," Michael Lisanti, Director of the Manchester Centre for Cellular Metabolism, said.

"They also play a crucial role in the recurrence of tumours after treatment. This is because conventional radiation and chemotherapies only kill the ‘bulk’ cancer cells, but do not generally affect the CSCs," said Lisanti.

"Graphene oxide is stable in water and has shown potential in biomedical applications. It can readily enter or attach to the surface of cells, making it a candidate for targeted drug delivery. In this work, surprisingly, it’s the graphene oxide itself that has been shown to be an effective anti-cancer drug," Dr Aravind Vijayaraghavan said.

"Cancer stem cells differentiate to form a small mass of cells known as a tumour-sphere. We saw that the graphene oxide flakes prevented CSCs from forming these, and instead forced them to differentiate into non-cancer stem-cells," said Vijayaraghavan.

"We hope that these exciting results in laboratory cell cultures can translate into an equally effective real-life option for cancer therapy," Vijayaraghavan added.

The team prepared a variety of graphene oxide formulations for testing against six different cancer types – breast, pancreatic, lung, brain, ovarian and prostate.

The flakes inhibited the formation of tumour sphere formation in all six types, suggesting that graphene oxide can be effective across all, or at least a large number of different cancers, by blocking processes which take place at the surface of the cells.

The researchers suggest that, used in combination with conventional cancer treatments, this may deliver a better overall clinical outcome.

The research was published in the journal Oncotarget.