New synthetic molecule can cause cancer cells to self-destruct

ANI| Last Updated: Aug 12, 2014, 13:03 PM IST

Washington: Researchers have developed a molecule that leads to cancer cells destroy themselves.

The University of Texas team created a synthetic ion transporter that binds to chloride ions. The molecule works by essentially surrounding the chloride ion in an organic blanket, allowing the ion to dissolve in the cell's membrane, which was composed largely of lipids, or fats. The researchers found that the transporter tends to use the sodium channels that naturally occur in the cell's membrane, bringing sodium ions along for the ride.

Researchers found that the ion transporters were effective in a model system using artificial lipid membranes. This confirmed a two-decades-old hypothesis that could point the way to new anticancer drugs while also benefitting patients with cystic fibrosis.

This was the first time researchers have shown synthetic ion transporters to work in a real biological system where transported ions demonstrably cause cells to self-destruct. Cells in the human body work hard to maintain a stable concentration of ions inside their cell membranes. Disruption of this delicate balance could trigger cells to go through apoptosis, known as programmed cell death, a mechanism the body uses to rid itself of damaged or dangerous cells.

One way of destroying cancer cells would be to trigger this innate self-destruct sequence by skewing the ion balance in cells. Unfortunately, when a cell becomes cancerous, it changes the way it transports ions across its cell membrane in a way that blocks apoptosis.

The research was able to show that these molecules promoted cell death in cultured human cancer cells. One of the major findings was that the cancer cell's ion concentrations changed before apoptosis was triggered, rather than as a side effect of the cell's death.

The research is published in the journal Nature Chemistry.