Scientists have developed a way to make simple oil droplets “smart” enough to navigate through a complex maze, almost like a trained lab rat. This technique might help cancer drugs reach their target.

Bartosz Grzybowski, Northwestern University (NU) chemical scientist and bio-engineer, and his colleagues note that the ability to solve a maze is a common scientific test of intelligence.

Animals ranging from rats to humans can master the task. Scientists would like to pass along that same ability to anti-cancer drugs, for instance, to help these medications navigate complex mazes of blood vessels and reach the tumour.

The scientists developed postage stamp-sized mazes, and infused them with an alkaline solution, and placed a gel containing a strong acid at the exit, says a release of the American Chemical Society.

That created a pH gradient, a difference between the acid-alkaline levels. Oil droplets containing a weak acid placed at the entrance of the mazes developed convective flows in response to pH differences and propelled themselves along the gradient toward the exit.

Since cancer cells are more acidic than other body cells, the experiment may serve as a model for designing new anti-cancer drugs that move along similar acid-based gradients to target diseased cells, the scientists suggest.

The study was published in the weekly Journal of the American Chemical Society.

More In: Sci-Tech | Medicine | Health