Scientists at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland have recently finished testing a new light-activated cancer-killing drug that can enter and kill cancer and other bacterial cells without harming nearby healthy cells. The study, published in the journal Nature Communications, was conducted on a group of zebrafish and human cells and showed promising signs of treating early-stage cancer and drug-resistant bacteria.
The cancer-killing molecule, known as SeNBD, when combined with a food compound that cancerous and bacterial cells typically eat, was able to trick cancer cells into ingesting the drug. This ‘trojan horse’ effect is what enables this new experimental drug to infiltrate drug-resistant cells.
“This research represents an important advance in the design of new therapies”
Lead researcher Marc Vendrell, professor and chair of translational chemistry and biomedical imaging at the University of Edinburgh commented on the study in a recent interview, stating, “This research represents an important advance in the design of new therapies that can be simply activated by light irradiation, which is generally very safe. SeNBD is one of the smallest photosensitizers ever made and its use as a ‘Trojan horse’ opens many new opportunities in interventional medicine for killing harmful cells without affecting surrounding healthy tissue.”
The breakthrough development of the study was the coupling of SeNBD with a food compound. For cells to survive, including both cancerous and bacterial cells, they need to ingest food. This food is typically made up of certain components of food, known as metabolites, such as sugars and amino acids.
Cancerous and bacterial cells are gluttons. Scientists involved with the study use the term ‘greedy’ when describing these targeted cells. This greed is what makes cancerous cells so dangerous. Greedy cells, such as cancerous and bacterial ones, generally consume higher levels of metabolites than otherwise normal, healthy cells. Thus, a ‘trojan horse’ drug that presents itself as food has shown to be especially effective in fighting these gluttons without being detected.
Scientists at the University of Edinburgh who created SeNBD have referred to the drug as a ‘metabolic warhead’ due to its ability to evade harmful cells without detection.
Another major component of the drug’s success is its reactivity to light. SeNBD is what is known by scientists as a light-activated photosensitizer, meaning that it only affects cells after it has been exposed to visible light.
In short, this means that after the drug has been administered to a patient, a surgeon could decide exactly where they want the drug to be activated by using light to switch the drug on and off. This precision could greatly reduce the chances of the drug damaging surrounding tissue, which could lead to side effects such as hair loss which are normally caused by other anti-cancer agents.
Dr. Sam Benson, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Edinburgh’s Center for Inflammation states that “With SeNBD, we can combine a light-activated drug with the food that cancerous and bacterial cells normally eat. This means we can deliver our ‘Trojan horse’ directly through the front door of the cell rather than trying to find a way to batter through the cell’s defenses.”
Researchers say that more information is needed to confirm their early findings and to determine whether SeNBD, in combination with their ‘trojan horse’ method, is a safe and effective treatment for early-stage cancers and drug-resistant bacteria.
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