Leaf cutter ants have inspired the development of a new type of anti-cancer drug that can also bypass the primary cause of chemotherapy resistance, scientists at the University of East Anglia have said.
After studying a type of antibiotic that is produced by bacteria that lives alongside leaf cutter ants, scientists at the university believe they have found a natural product that could be the basis for new drugs, including anti- cancer drugs.
They were able to identify the genetic pathway involved in producing the antibiotic, which they believe can be used to create the drugs.
Dr Matt Hutchings from UEA’s school of Biological Sciences explained: "We’re using genetics to understand how the drugs are made in the bacteria so we can tweak the characteristics in favour of anti-cancer action, whilst protecting healthy cells.
"We want to make Streptomyces into a factory to produce a new type of chemotherapy drug on a large scale."
The bacteria, called Streptomyces bacteria, live on the outer surface of the ants, providing antibiotic protection against disease-causing infection. Among the antibiotics they produce are compounds called antimycins, which have powerful activity against drug-resistant cancer cells.
Over 40 members of the antimycin family of antibiotics are known, but the pathway was only recently identified by the UEA research team.
Dr Hutchings said: "Although scientists have known about these antibiotics for more than 60 years, we’ve only recently identified two genetic pathways that are involved in making these molecules and we’re looking for still more."
"What’s particularly exciting is that the way the drugs work actually tackles one of the main causes of resistance to chemotherapy. In fact, the harder the cancer cell tries to overcome the chemotherapy, the more effective the drug is," he adds.
Chemotherapy resistance often arises because cancer cells produce proteins that prevent apoptosis, or ‘cell suicide’, that would otherwise be triggered by the treatment. However, antimycins actually inhibit the action of these proteins, allowing apoptosis to continue unhindered.
Dr Hutchings’ team is aiming to make changes through genetics so that the drugs can be made cheaply and on a large scale using bacteria in fermentation tanks.
Image: The new drugs could actually tackle one of the main causes of resistance to chemotherapy. Photo courtesy of Adrian Pingstone.