Scientists look to regenerative 'chemo-catalyst' for more selective cancer drugs

By Flora Southey contact

- Last updated on GMT

GettyImages/MSul
GettyImages/MSul

Related tags: Cancer cells, Cancer, Chemotherapy, Oncology

A natural substance found in stinging nettles and ants repeatedly attacks cancer within cells, say scientists developing low-dose alternatives to current chemotherapy drugs.

Scientists at Warwick University, UK are researching the organic-osmium compound JPC11 which targets a metabolic process used by cancer cells to multiply.

“It does this by converting a key substance used by cancer cells to provide the energy they need for rapid division (pyruvate) into an unnatural lactate – leading to the cells’ destruction,” ​said the university.

The process is triggered by a non-toxic dose of sodium formate, an approved food additive (E237) that can be bought commercially, which can also be found in natural organisms including nettles and ants.

The university’s James Coverdale said the osmium ‘chemo-catalysts’ carry out a metal-based cancer-targeting process inside cells, like a “small molecular machine.”

“After the ‘chemo-catalyst’ has performed its task, it is re-generated inside the cell, and can carry out the process multiple times in the same cell,” ​he said.

The fact the compound is ‘regenerated’ inside cells means that a lesser amount has to be administered in the first instance, said Coverdale.

“We hope that future pharmaceuticals will benefit from this – allowing smaller doses to be administered for patients – which may reduce the unpleasant side effects currently experienced in the clinic,” ​he said.

Further, the development opens us a possibility for a more selective cancer treatment.

“JPC11 was observed to specifically target the biochemistry of cancer cells, leaving healthy cells largely untouched – another improvement compared to existing platinum-based drugs, which can also attack non-cancerous cells,” ​said the university.

Research results have been published in Nature Chemistry​.

Drug resistance

The university said ovarian cancers are becoming increasingly resistant to existing chemotherapy drugs.

The compounds developed by Warwick University could help researchers “overcome current clinical limitations, such as the increasing drug-resistance observed in some cancers,” ​Coverdale told us, adding that the treatment is being developed for ovarian and prostate cancers.

“Since this new research functions in a totally new and unique way, it may overcome this acquired resistance and widen the spectrum of anticancer activity,” ​said the university.

Cost and licensing

Coverdale told us the use of a precious metal-containing compound (osmium) is costly, however the metal is crucial to the activity of the compound inside cells.

“Furthermore, a compound that can be ‘regenerated’ in cells (hopefully leading to dose-minimisation in the future) would mean that less would be required in the first instance for treatment,” ​he said.

Companies wishing to invest in this technology are invited to contact the technology transfer and commercialisation office of the university, Warwick Ventures.

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