‘Trojan horse’ drug targets cancerous cells but leaves surrounding tissue unharmed

‘Metabolic warhead’ molecule bypasses malignant cells’ defences before doctors use light to activate it

Jon Sharman
Monday 31 May 2021 14:52 BST
Cancer cells are ‘greedy’ and consume more energy than healthy ones – which scientists turned to their advantage
Cancer cells are ‘greedy’ and consume more energy than healthy ones – which scientists turned to their advantage (AP)

Scientists have created a “Trojan horse” drug that kills cancer cells and bacteria without harming healthy tissue nearby, in a promising development for the creation of new treatments.

However, they say more testing is needed to confirm the technique is safe and a speedy means of treating early-stage cancer. They also hope it can help tackle drug-resistant bacteria.

Researchers at the University of Edinburgh combined the tiny cancer-killing molecule SeNBD with a chemical food compound to trick malignant cells into ingesting it. They used both zebrafish and human cells for their experiments.

Cancerous cells are “greedy” and must consume high amounts of food to survive – usually more than healthy cells, the university said. When SeNBD is coupled with a compound these cells use for food it becomes “ideal prey” for them, yet does not alert them to its toxic nature.

The compound’s inventors called it a “metabolic warhead”. After it is deployed, doctors activate its cancer-killing properties by exposing it to visible light, meaning a greater degree of precision.

This reduces the chances of SeNBD destroying healthy tissues, and may help avoid side-effects like hair loss caused by other anti-cancer agents, said the university.

Professor Marc Vendrell, the project’s lead researcher and chair of translational chemistry and biomedical imaging at the University of Edinburgh, 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.”

Dr Sam Benson, a post-doctoral researcher at the university, said the drug was delivered through the “front door of the cell” rather than having to “find a way to batter through the cell's defences”.

The findings are published in the journal Nature Communications.

In Greek mythology, the Trojan horse was a huge wooden statue used by the warriors of Greece to gain access to the city of Troy. They hid inside and pretended to have fled their war with the Trojans, before leaping out from inside the contraption when it was mistaken for a gift and brought inside the city walls.

Additional reporting by Press Association

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