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Wednesday, 13 August 2014

Synthetic molecule makes cancer self-destruct

Researchers from The University of Texas at Austin and five other institutions have created a molecule that can cause cancer cells to self-destruct by ferrying sodium and chloride ions into the cancer cells.

These synthetic ion transporters, described this week in the journal Nature Chemistry, confirm a two-decades-old hypothesis that could point the way to new anticancer drugs while also benefitting patients with cystic fibrosis.

Synthetic ion transporters have been created before, but this is the first time researchers have shown them working in a real biological system where transported ions demonstrably cause cells to self-destruct.

Cells in the human body work hard to maintain a stable concentration of ions inside their cell membranes. Disruption of this delicate balance can trigger cells to go through apoptosis, known as programmed cell death, a mechanism the body uses to rid itself of damaged or dangerous cells.

One way of destroying cancer cells would be to trigger this innate self-destruct sequence by skewing the ion balance in cells. Unfortunately, when a cell becomes cancerous, it changes the way it transports ions across its cell membrane in a way that blocks apoptosis.

Almost two decades ago, a natural substance called prodigiosin was discovered that acted as a natural ion transporter and has an anticancer effect.

Since then, it has been a "chemist's dream," said Jonathan Sessler, professor in The University of Texas at Austin's College of Natural Sciences and co-author of the study, to find "synthetic transporters that might be able to do exactly the same job, but better, and also work for treating diseases such as cystic fibrosis where chloride channels don't work."

Sessler and his collaborators, led by professors Injae Shin of Yonsei University and Philip A. Gale of the University of Southampton and King Abdulaziz University, were able to bring this dream to fruition.

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