Gold could be the future of medication delivery

The days of swallowing medicine and hoping it does the job are numbered. In future, precious metals will deliver drugs to a specifically targeted type of cell or part of the body.

At least, that’s according to scientists from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and EPFL, who have discovered that gold nanoparticles are able to penetrate cell membranes, meaning they should be able to transport medication to directly where it needs to go.

While most nanoparticles enter cells by a process that can damage the cell membrane, back in 2008 some of the same scientists who worked on this project found that a special class of gold nanoparticles coated with a mix of molecules could enter cells without disruption.

Last year, the research team, led by Alfredo Alexander-Katz and Francesco Stellacci, discovered that the nanoparticles were fusing with cell membranes and becoming absorbed by the cells, but they didn’t know why. So they created detailed computer simulations to model the process, and performed experiments to confirm what the model predicted. Their simulations showed that tiny defects in cell cohesion allow the nanoparticles to slip through the gap, fusing with molecules in the body that, like the nanoparticles, are hydrophobic (water-repelling).

This appears to be similar to a process that happens naturally in cells, where the membrane fuses with vesicles: tiny spheres that transport neurotransmitters or hormones around the body. Now that the pathway has been identified, scientists can not only work on how to engineer these nanoparticles to deliver drugs, but try to understand the absorption process for different types of cell. This should allow them to design the best delivery system possible for the medications of the future.

Image via Mark Herpel’s Flickr.

Diane Shipley

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