By Sophia Koch

By deploying a newly developed drug against a major energy source of cancer cells, scientists at the Max Planck Institute for Polymer Research have developed a new way to eliminate them in mere hours. The technology relies on self-assembling molecules that take a potent form in the cellular environment, and in doing so effectively starve cancer cells of the oxygen they need to grow.

The technology at the heart of this research targets one of the key metabolic functions of cells in all living things called ATP, or adenosine triphosphate. This molecule is the primary energy carrier in cells, capturing chemical energy from the breakdown of food molecules and distributing it to power other cellular processes.

Among those cellular processes is the proliferation of cancer cells, and because of this we have seen ATP implicated in previous anticancer successes. The authors of the new study sought to cut off the supply of ATP, which is produced as mitochondria absorb oxygen and turn it into molecules.

The team was able to achieve this through a newly developed drug described as a platinum(II)-containing tripeptide. When it enters the cellular environment, it reacts with endogenous hydrogen peroxide, binding its molecules together to form tiny hairs, which are thousands of times thinner than a human hair.

“These hairs are fluorescent, so you can see them directly with a microscope,” said study author Zixuan Zhou.

After watching the game, the team found that hair inhibited the conversion of oxygen into ATP. Testing it in the lab in untreated metastatic lung and breast cancer cells resulted in those cells dying within four hours. This bodes well for the development of new therapies for this type of incurable cancer, which are able to adapt to the treatment and evolve.

Study author David Ng says, “We want to prevent this kind of adaptation by attacking the main pillar of cellular life – how cells breathe – that means taking in oxygen – and thereby using chemical energy for growth.” produces.”

Although the team’s experiments focused on the environment within lung and breast cancer cells, the fact that ATP is at work in other cell types suggests that the technique could have broad implications in drug development. The scientists note that translating this technology into a safe clinical drug for the human body will require years and work, but hope it could lead to new treatments for difficult-to-treat conditions. 

The research was published in the Journal of the American Chemical Society.