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Boron vs. Cancer

Biomedical researchers would like to be able to deliver chemicals directly to a cell nucleus-cancer therapy being one reason. UCLA chemist Fred Hawthorne may have discovered a chemical “roach motel” that provides entry to but no exit from the nucleus. He found the passageway while trying to get boron-rich compounds into cells in studies of a cancer treatment called boron neutron capture therapy (BNCT). In BNCT, boron atoms interact with neutron beams to create an unstable isotope that blows apart, as if the neutron had tripped a landmine inside the cell.

Hawthorne has designed novel, small molecules called nido-carboranyl oligomeric phosphate diesters-nido-OPDs-that carry boron into cell interiors more effectively than before. Although Hawthorne expected that the small nido-OPDs molecules would diffuse in and out of the nucleus, he found that they accumulated; once the molecules checked in, they didn’t check out. Most were still present in the nucleus 24 hours later, a finding that could help make BNCT a much more effective cancer treatment in the future.

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Illustration by Rose Wong

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