Graphene has been hailed as a wonder substance set to revolutionise materials science. It has the potential to allow the production of lighter, stronger composites as well as flexible, bendable electronics. Graphene oxide membranes can be used to prevent surface corrosion or filter clean water in real time but in the most recent research findings it seems as though Graphene also has applications in the field of biological sciences. Research carried out at the University of Manchester indicates that it can be used to target and neutralise cancer stem cells while not harming the healthy ones.

The research led by Professor Michael Lisanti and Dr Aravind Vijayaraghavan has shown that graphene oxide, a modified form of graphene, acts as an anti-cancer agent that selectively targets cancer stem cells (CSCs). In combination with existing treatments, this could eventually lead to tumour shrinkage as well as preventing the spread of cancer and its recurrence after treatment.

According to Professor Lisanti cancer stem cells have the ability to give rise to many different tumour cell types. They are responsible for the spread of cancer within the body - known as metastasis- which accounts for 90% of cancer deaths. Cancer stem cells differentiate to form a small mass of cells known as a tumour-sphere. The research showed that the graphene oxide flakes prevented CSCs from forming these, and instead forced them to differentiate into non-cancer stem-cells.

The team prepared a variety of graphene oxide formulations for testing on six different cancer types - breast, pancreatic, lung, brain, ovarian and prostate. The flakes inhibited the formation of tumour spheres in all six types, suggesting that graphene oxide can be effective across all, or at least a large number of different cancers, by blocking processes which take place at the surface of the cells. The researchers suggest that, used in combination with conventional cancer treatments, this may deliver a better overall clinical outcome.

Dr Federica Sotgia, one of the co-authors of the study concluded: "These findings show that graphene oxide could possibly be applied as a lavage or rinse during surgery to clear CSCs or as a drug targeted at CSCs.