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Buckyball Cures

Medicine: A first generation of fullerene-based drugs is on the way.

In 1985 chemists discovered a soccer-ball-shaped molecule made of 60 carbon atoms and called it buckminsterfullerene-buckyball for short. Researchers have imagined using the molecule for everything from rocket fuels to lubricants, but real-world applications have yet to materialize.

That could soon change. Toronto-based C Sixty plans to start clinical testing of three fullerene-based drugs in the next year and a half. Coordinating the efforts of a dozen university researchers worldwide, C Sixty is developing drugs for the treatment of AIDS, Parkinson’s disease, Lou Gehrig’s disease, osteoporosis and cancer. “I think their chances are extremely good. The arguments for the success of these things are really quite stunning,” says Rice University chemist and C Sixty scientific advisor Richard Smalley, who shared the 1996 Nobel Prize for his codiscovery of fullerenes.

About one nanometer in diameter, buckyballs are the perfect size to interact with DNA and proteins. And chemists can attach different chemical groups to the carbon scaffold, making drugs with multiple functions. New York University chemist Stephen Wilson, who developed the techniques that make this possible, calls buckyballs “molecular pincushions.”

Fullerene drugs could also be exceptionally nontoxic. A fullerene-based version of an AIDS drug, for one, appears to be much less toxic than existing treatments. And it has another startling quality: it works against every drug-resistant HIV strain it has been tested on. Because the drug could fill an important growing niche in AIDS treatment, C Sixty plans to request “fast track” status from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to help speed the drug to market. Fast-tracked drugs can reach pharmacies 18 months to two years from the start of testing.

C Sixty is not without competitors, though. Fullerene International, a joint venture of Japanese conglomerate Mitsubishi and two Arizona-based startups, says it could begin testing buckyball-based drugs for cancer and AIDS by the end of the year. 

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Illustration by Rose Wong

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