Cancer cells ’’commit suicide’’

Catalysts which cause cancer cells to ’’commit suicide’’ have been developed in the laboratory by West Country scientists.

The research groups of Dr Claus Jacob, of Exeter University and Dr Nicholas Gutowski at the Royal Devon and Exeter Hospital, with support from the Peninsula Medical School, are investigating the anti-cancer effects of biocatalysts that mimic the activity of the human selenium enzyme, glutathione peroxidase. Their work opens up a very promising new direction for anti-cancer research, but both stress that any potential treatment for sufferers is still many years away.

Dr Jacob, of the University’’s School of Biological and Chemical Sciences, explained: ’’The catalysts work by initiating reactions inside the cancer cell that cause it to destroy itself. In effect, the cancer commits
suicide. One of the benefits of this approach is that the drugs target only the diseased cells.
The research opens up the possibility in the future of an entirely new way of treating cancer that has two advantages over conventional treatments:

1. The catalysts use the particular makeup of cancer cells for their activity and thus do not work in healthy cells. This means they are far more targeted than conventional drugs and could potentially avoid many of the unpleasant side effects associated with chemotherapy and radiotherapy.

2. Catalysts are not consumed during their activity but are recycled over and over again. This means that only minute quantities of biocatalyst are needed to kill cancer cells making them highly efficient.

Dr Jacob said: ’’Cancer therapy has long been based on highly toxic substances that randomly kill healthy and sick cells alike. This new approach might allow us to single out sick cells and kill them with a catalytic efficiency far superior to conventional radiation or chemotherapy. The experimental results obtained so far have been truly impressive but further evaluation and clinical trials are required to develop this.’’

The compounds have been developed and synthesised at the University’’s School of Biological and Chemical Sciences and tested in cancer cells at the Royal Devon and Exeter Hospital. The work has been partially funded by the Leverhulme Trust. An Exeter based company has already shown an interest in the compounds and the new method. The most active compound tested so far is a multifunctional catalyst that integrates a quinone with a chalcogen redox system in one chemically simple molecule.

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