The jury is still out with regards to whether long-term exposure to cell phone radiation has the potential to promote certain types of cancers, especially in specific subsets of the population, but an increasingly popular material used in gadgets is now showing real promise as a cancer treatment. The material is graphene — carbon atoms arranges in a single, incredibly thin layer — and it’s already being developed for use in everything from smartphone batteries to flexible displays.

In a new research paper published in Science Advances, a team of scientists explains how they discovered that graphene can be used to stimulate living cells. Going forward, this technique could be used to exploit weaknesses in cancer cells and kill them off without harming nearby healthy cells.

As IEEE Spectrum reports, the discovery was the result of an experiment conducted by University of California San Diego biophysicist Alex Savchenko and his colleagues. Knowing that graphene has the unique ability to convert light into electricity, the team decided to test whether or not that electrical charge could stimulate live human cells. After trying a few different combinations of light and types of graphene, they achieved the result they were after.

“I was looking at the microscope’s computer screen and I’m turning the knob for light intensity and I see the cells start beating faster,” Savchenko explains. “I showed that to our grad students and they were yelling and jumping and asking if they could turn the knob. We had never seen this possibility of controlling cell contraction.”

The discovery has a whole host of potential applications — from enhancing stem cell treatments to customized painkillers that target just the pain-causing nerves to mitigate their abuse potential — but one of the most interesting its the possibility of a electricity-based cancer-fighting system.

As IEEE Spectrum explains, cancer cells tend to have a lower threshold of electrical stimulation than healthy cells. By spreading graphene particles in the area of the body affected by cancer, doctors could use light to stimulate just the cancerous cells. The membrane of the cancer cells would be forced open, allowing the flow of positively charged ions into the cell, eventually overwhelming it and killing it.

At the moment, this is entirely theoretical, but the researchers have already proven that the foundation for such a treatment does indeed work. A huge amount of work still sits between this would-be treatment and testing, so we’ll have to wait and see how it pans out.

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