New light-activated drug acts like a Trojan horse to kill cancer cells

The goal of modern cancer treatments is to kill off cancer cells while causing the least amount of damage to the surrounding tissue. This is not easy to do with current therapies, which often cause significant side effects. Now researchers at the University of Edinburgh have tested new light-activated drugs that use a Trojan horse technique to kill cancer and bacterial cells.

Cancer and bacterial cells ten to be greedy and consume more of the chemical food compounds for energy, which makes them susceptible to this novel Trojan horse approach. Image credit: DataBase Center for Life Science via Wikimedia (CC BY-SA 4.0)

Scientists have been studying a tiny little molecule called SeNBD, which is able to kill cancer cells. Its minute size is an advantage as it can slip through a cell's defenses much more easily. Researchers combined SeNBD with a chemical food compound, which encourages cancer cells to ingest the drug. This was the key to success as scientists have successfully tested this Trojan horse approach in zebrafish and cells.

Although this is not a biological fact, cancer and bacterial cells tend to be greedy. They have to consume chemical components of food (known as metabolites) for energy. As cancer cells grow rapidly, they need more of those metabolites, such as sugars and amino acids. That is why scientists combined the SeNBD molecule with a metabolite, which encourages those greedy cells to take the bait. Previously this wasn’t possible, because light-sensitive cancer killing cells were bigger than metabolites. But SeNBD is very small, allowing for this Trojan horse technique to be effective. Cancer and bacterial cells allow the drug in, thinking it is just a metabolite, and then are destroyed from within. Researchers call it a “metabolic warhead”.

Professor Marc Vendrell, one of the authors of the study, said: “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 photosensitisers 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.”

But what about the light activation part? SeNBD is a so-called photosensitiser – it is activated by visible light. This means that a surgeon would decide where he wants the drug to be active and would use light to activate it. This approach should help avoid damaging healthy tissues and reduce the likelihood of adverse side effects.

And that’s the main advantage of this technique – it is better for the patient, while killing cancer and bacterial cells from within. Because of how accurate it can be, it could be stronger, while the patient could, for example, keep his hair. These new efforts in cancer treatment are really gaining speed now and hopefully treatment side-effects will soon be a thing of the past.


Source: University of Edinburgh