Skip to main content

Snapshots of Life: Finding a Cube for Cancer

Posted on by Dr. Francis Collins


Targeted drug delivery systems for cancer treatment

Jenolyn F. Alexander and Biana Godin, Houston Methodist Research Institute; Veronika Kozlovskaya and Eugenia Kharlampieva, University of Alabama at Birmingham.

Creative photographers have long experimented with superimposing images, one over the other, to produce striking visual effects. Now a group of NIH-supported scientists at Houston Methodist Research Institute and their colleagues have done the same thing to highlight their work in the emerging field of cancer nanomedicine, using microscopic materials to deliver cancer treatments with potentially greater precision. In the process, the researchers generated a photographic work of art that was a winner in the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology 2015 Bioart competition.

The gold cubes are man-made polymer microcarriers, just 2 micrometers wide (by comparison, human cells generally range in diameter from 7 to 20 micrometers), designed to transport chemotherapy drugs directly to tumor cells. These experimental cubes, enlarged in the upper left part of the photo with a scanning electron microscope for better viewing, have been superimposed onto a second photograph snapped with a confocal fluorescence microscope. It shows similar cube-shaped microcarriers (yellow) inside cultured breast cancer cells (nucleus is purple, cytoplasm is turquoise).

Although the cubes inside the cells are empty and won’t kill the tumor cells, this dry run illustrates an interesting finding: of three breast cancer cell lines studied, all preferentially internalized cubed microcarriers over spherical ones [1]. In one cell line incubated for 24 hours with the differently shaped microcarriers, the cubes were internalized 8.8 fold more often than the spheres. While this discovery is yet to be fully explained, the researchers suspect that the flat surface of the cubes allows better adherence to the cancer cell membrane than spheres. As a result, cancer cells can more readily haul them inside.

Biana Godin, a senior author on the paper and researcher at Houston Methodist, will soon load these cubes with chemotherapy drugs and begin testing them in animals with tumors. They’ll explore how the elasticity and other features of these tiny cubes influence their ability to deliver treatment effectively. Here’s to thinking outside the box and inside the cube.


Cubical Shape Enhances the Interaction of Layer-by-Layer Polymeric Particles with Breast Cancer Cells. Alexander JF, Kozlovskaya V, Chen J, Kuncewicz T, Kharlampieva E, Godin B. Adv Healthc Mater. 2015 Dec;4(17):2657-66.


NCI Alliance for Nanotechnology in Cancer (National Cancer Institute/NIH)

Godin Lab (Houston Methodist Research Institute)

BioArt (Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology, Bethesda, MD)

NIH Support: National Cancer Institute


  • Danny Saydak says:

    Hi Dr. Collins,
    This is a little off-topic, but as a guitar player I am very interested in your guitar, with the double-helix fingerboard inlay. If you don’t mind and have the time, could you tell me a bit about this guitar and who made it for you?
    PS I am halfway through your book “The language of God” and am enjoying it very much.

    • Moderator says:

      Thanks for your question and comment. Dr. Collins’ guitar is a custom Huss & Dalton made in Staunton, VA, which just happens to be his hometown. It was a very special gift presented to him by coworkers during a retirement party to mark his departure as director of NIH’s National Human Genome Research Institute in 2008. The double helix is gold mother-of-pearl and runs the length of the fretboard. He affectionately named the guitar Rosalind, after Rosalind Franklin.

  • anka says:

    Scientific studies are extremely interesting. I was always curious about the world and I wanted to participate. Fate was doing another profession, but I’m not complaining.

Leave a Comment