Ancient ink for cancer treatment

September 27, 2017

For hundreds of years, Chinese calligraphers have used a plant-based ink to create beautiful messages and art. Now, one group reports in ACS Omega that this ink could noninvasively and effectively treat cancer cells that spread, or metastasize, to lymph nodes.

As cancer cells leave a tumor, they frequently make their way to lymph nodes, which are part of the immune system. In this case, the main treatment option is surgery, but this can result in complications. Photothermal therapy (PTT) is an emerging noninvasive treatment option in which nanomaterials are injected and accumulate in cancer cells. A laser heats up the nanomaterials, and this heat kills the cells. Many of these nanomaterials are expensive, difficult-to-make and toxic. However, a traditional Chinese ink called Hu-Kaiwen ink (Hu-ink) has similar properties to the nanomaterials used in PTT. For example, they are the same color, and are both carbon-based and stable in water. So Wuli Yang and colleagues wanted to see if Hu-ink could be a good alternative material for PTT.

The researchers analyzed Hu-ink and found that it consists of nanoparticles and thin layers of carbon. When Hu-ink was heated with a laser, its temperature rose by 131 degrees Fahrenheit, much higher than current nanomaterials. Under PPT conditions, the Hu-ink killed cancer cells in a laboratory dish, but under normal conditions, the ink was non-toxic. This was also the scenario observed in mice with tumors. The researchers also noted that Hu-ink could act as a probe to locate tumors and metastases because it absorbs near-infrared light, which goes through skin.
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The authors acknowledge funding from the National Natural Science Foundation of China and the Key Technologies R&D Program of China.

The study is freely available here.

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