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Cancer fought by superglue

Researchers at Oxford have created a ‘superglue’ which may help to detect cancer.

The glue was engineered by Dr Mark Howarth and his graduate student Bikan Zakeri from the Department of Biochemistry, using a protein from the flesh eating bacteria Streptococcus pyogenes which causes sore throats.

The glue works when the structure of a large protein from Streptococcus pyogenes, nicknamed ‘SpyCatcher’ is stabilised by a smaller protein segment, nicknamed ‘SpyTag’.

Once this is done the two parts bond immovably together in minutes, and can resist extreme temperatures or acidic conditions.

The research term from Oxford collaborated with the University of Miami to try and measure what force was required to separate SpyCatcher and Spy Tag, but the chemical links holding them to the apparatus broke before the bond between SpyCatcher and SpyTag.

The glue may be used in the future to lock proteins together in the body.

Speaking at the 245th National Meeting & Exposition of the American Chemical Society in New Orleans last week, Dr Howarth said, “A future use of the technology would be to test for circulating tumour cells or CTCs, cells which tumours shed into the bloodstream where they act to help spread the cancer to other parts of the body.

“Detecting CTCs has the potential to help early diagnosis of cancer from samples of blood rather than by biopsies. Detection could also help in determining when new treatments are required to try and stop the cancer from spreading.”

A spokesperson for Oxford University told Cherwell, “The use in potentially detecting cancer cells is speculative at this stage so shouldn’t be overstated, but there is an exciting range of possibilities.”

The technology could also be used to stick enzymes together in chemical processes in factories, or grouping elements which plants use to turn sunlight into energy, which could lead to scientists artificially creating photosynthesis to use as green energy.

Dr Howarth and his team are now working with Isis Innovation, Oxford University’s technology transfer company, to develop the technology and bring it to the market.

A spokesperson for Isis Innovation told Cherwell, “The SpyTag/SpyCatcher system creates an incredibly strong, irreversible bond when the two parts of the protein join. This has a wide range of potential applications, such as in drug discovery, reagent purification and diagnostic testing.

Time to market will depend on the application, but within 12 months for research use in drug discovery is possible. Diagnostic testing for cancer treatment would be a longer timeframe, typically 2-5 years as it would require clinical validation.”

Will Toher, a student at Balliol College commented, “Doctors will have to bone up on this new streptococcus technology. I’m not sure I’d like to have my proteins stuck together though, it sounds pretty gluesome.”

Oxford researches have also recently made developments in catching cancer cells and understanding what fuels them.

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