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Water: a missing piece in the cancer treatment jigsaw puzzle

An international collaboration with scientists working at ISIS Neutron and Muon Source (ISIS) has developed an innovative way to study how cancerous cells respond to drugs used to treat them. The study, which focused on the behaviour of water molecules within cancer cells, has the potential to lead to future improvements in cancer diagnosis and treatment.

Your body is mostly made up of water – as a whole it is some 60 per cent water, but some organs, such as the brain and heart, are more than 70 per cent water. This means that water plays a very important role in your cells, including those that make up cancerous tissues. So it may come as a surprise to learn that, despite water’s ubiquity, its properties are not fully considered when scientists try to understand the behaviour of cancerous cells.

The oversight is even more surprising when you consider that water is directly involved in countless cellular processes – virtually all the chemical reactions in life take place within an aqueous solution. Water also plays an important role in how a cell responds to ionising radiation, or chemotherapy drugs, used in cancer treatments. The new study focused on the effects that a chemotherapy drug may have on water molecules within cells.

The study is the result of a collaboration between the University of Copenhagen in Denmark, the Pontifical Catholic University of Goias in Brazil, Oak Ridge National Laboratory in the US, and ISIS Neutron and Muon Source (ISIS).

Using the TOSCA spectrometer at ISIS, the team employed a technique known as inelastic neutron scattering (INS) to look at the effect that a chemotherapy drug has on water molecules within breast cancer cells. INS uses neutrons (particles with no electric charge that gives a unique perception of hydrogen motions) to probe the dynamics and associated geometric motion of the water molecules without damaging the sample.

When neutrons interact with the sample, scattering occurs and by measuring the energy difference between the incoming and outgoing neutrons, information about the sample’s microscopic dynamics can be obtained. The collected data was used to describe the motions of the water molecules before and after treatment with the drug.

The team found that over the energy interval in which the experiments were performed – corresponding to a period of mere nanoseconds (a few thousand-millionths of a second) – the motion of the water molecules within the cells changed after treatment with the drug. Post-treatment, the molecules’ movements were less constrained and their motion increased.

Since water is involved in so many processes within cells, any information that leads to a better understanding of the dynamics of cellular water can only be useful. The role of water in the development of tumours might be more significant than has previously been considered, so being able to track how water molecules behave before and after treatment could be a significant step forward in understanding this relationship.

For example, it could help to explain why some types of cancer respond differently to certain treatments than others. The method used in this pilot study has the potential to lead to improvements in disease diagnosis and lead to new approaches for the treatment of cancers. It is even possible that drugs could be developed focusing on modifying the properties of cellular water to achieve specific treatment outcomes.

In the long-term, the real significance of this result will only be revealed by future works carried out in cooperation with the wider medical community – something that the authors hope will be stimulated by their work here.

The paper describing the results has been published in the journal ‘Scientific Reports’.


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Last updated: 08 July 2019

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