Finding the Achilles' heel of cancer, researchers at Tel Aviv University have discovered that a drug, which was never approved for preventing the death of nerve cells after a stroke, could efficiently kill cancer cells while keeping normal cells healthy and intact.
Prof. Malka Cohen-Armon found that the stroke drug - a member of a family of phenanthridine derivatives developed by an American drug company - worked to kill cancer in mice which had been implanted with human breast cancer cells.
"Not only did the drug kill the cancer, but when we investigated normal cells, we discovered that they'd reacted as though they hadn't come in contact with the drug. This is the result we were hoping for. If human trials go well, we could have an entirely new class of drugs in our hands for the fight against cancer," said Cohen-Armon.
She said that the immediate results of the study were only one of the promising findings in her research.
The team also discovered a molecular mechanism in the cell cycle that can be arrested only in human cancer cells.
They reported that this cell cycle arrest causes the cancer cells to die without affecting normal human cells.
"We've found a molecular triggering mechanism in cancer cells that, when set off, causes the cancer cells to die - they just stop multiplying and die within 48 to 72 hours. Normal, healthy body cells are only temporarily arrested by the same mechanism - they overcome this cell cycle arrest within 12 hours and continue to proliferate in the presence of the drug as normal un-treated cells. All the human cancer cells we tested seemed to succumb to this compound," said Cohen-Armon.
She added that even if this particular drug doesn't reach the market to fight against cancer, an entirely new class of drugs might be built around mechanism the team has revealed.
The stroke drug was initially developed to prevent nerve cell death during inflammation and tissue damage in the brain after stroke.
However, in pre-clinical studies, researchers found that these compounds didn't work as well as they'd hoped and now they are used only for research purposes in laboratory settings.
The finding is reporting in the journal Breast Cancer Research.