New molecule that can suffocate cancer cells discovered


Cancer cell

A new molecule that stops cancer cells from responding and surviving by starving them of oxygen could provide a new treatment pathway for the disease, according to Cancer Research UK scientists.

After testing 3.2 million potential compounds, the scientists, working at the University of Southampton, found a molecule that targets a master switch that cancer cells use to adapt to low oxygen levels, which is a common symptom of the disease.

They then found a way to stop the cancer cells using this switch, called HIF-1, through a technique called 'synthetic biology'.

Cancer Research UK scientist Dr Ali Tavassoli, whose team discovered and developed the compound, said: "We've found a way to target the steps that cancer cells take to survive and we hope that our research will one day lead to effective drugs that can stop cancers adapting to a low oxygen environment, stopping their growth."

To survive, all cells need a blood supply to gain access to oxygen and nutrients. As cancer tumours grow, often rapidly, and gets bigger it outstrips the supply of oxygen and nutrients that the surrounding blood vessels can deliver.

"For the first time, our scientists have found a way to block a master switch controlling cells response to low levels of oxygen, an important step towards creating drugs that could halt cancer in its tracks."

To cope with this low supply of oxygen, HIF-1 acts as a master switch that turns on hundreds of genes, allowing cancer cells to survive. New blood vessels form around tumours, causing more oxygen and nutrients to be delivered to the starving tumour, which in turn allows it to keep growing.

Cancer Research UK senior science information manager Dr Julie Sharp said: "Finding ways to disrupt the tools that cancer cells use to adapt and grow when starved of oxygen has been a hot topic in cancer research.

"For the first time, our scientists have found a way to block a master switch controlling cells response to low levels of oxygen, an important step towards creating drugs that could halt cancer in its tracks."

Dr Tavassoli said the next step is to further develop this molecule to create an effective treatment.

Full details of the study are published in the Journal of the American Chemical Society1 today.


Image: Electron microscopic image of a single human lymphocyte (cancer cell). Photo: courtesy of Dr Triche, National Cancer Institute.