Stinging nettle chemical improves cancer drug

A cancer drug could be made 50 times more effective by a chemical found in stinging nettles and ants, new research finds

Researchers at the University of Warwick have found that when sodium formate is used in combination with a metal-based cancer treatment, it can greatly increase its ability to shut down cancer cells. Developed by Warwick’s Department of Chemistry, the drug, a compound of the metal ruthenium called JS07, is capable of exploiting a cancer cell’s natural weaknesses and disrupts its energy generation mechanism.

Laboratory tests on ovarian cancer cells have shown that when used in combination with sodium formate, JS07 is 50 times more effective than when acting alone. Derived from formic acid, which is commonly found in a number of natural organisms, including nettles and ants, sodium formate (E-237) is more commonly used as a food preservative.

The Warwick researchers developed a novel way of binding sodium formate to JS07 to create a more potent form of the drug. They subsequently found that the potent form of JS07 acts as a catalyst when it interacts with a cancer cell’s energy generating mechanism. This interaction disrupts the mechanism, causing the cell’s vital processes to cease functioning and the cell to shut down.

Lead researcher Professor Peter Sadler explains: ‘Cancer cells require a complex balance of processes to survive. When this balance is disrupted the cell is unable to function because of a range of process failures and eventually shuts down. The potent form of JS07 has proven to be very successful when tested on ovarian cancer cells.’

The combination of sodium formate and JS07 provides a number of potential benefits to cancer patients, including a reduction in the negative side-effects compared with other traditional cancer treatments.

‘By itself, JS07 is capable of shutting down cancer cells; but, when used in combination with sodium formate, this ability is significantly increased. As a result, lower doses would be required to target cancer cells — reducing both the drug’s toxicity and potential side-effects,’ says Professor Sadler.

A further benefit is that once the potent form of JS07 has interacted with a cell’s energy generation mechanism, the remaining non-potent JS07 molecules can then be reused in combination with a fresh supply of sodium formate.

‘Current statistics indicate that one in every three people will develop some kind of cancer during their lifetime. Moreover, approximately one woman dies of ovarian cancer every two hours in the UK, according to Cancer Research UK. It is clear that a new generation of drugs is necessary to save more lives and our research points to a highly effective way of defeating cancerous cells,’ concluded Sadler.

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