Doctors use Trojan horse drug to trick cancer cells while ignoring healthy ones – Miriam Stoppard

Dr Miriam Stoppard reports on University of Edinburgh innovation that combines a cancer-killing molecule with a chemical food compound to trick cancer cells into ingesting the drug

Experts have a new way of attacking cancer cells (Image: Getty Images)

Truly there’s no end to the ­cleverness of our scientists. ­Researchers at Edinburgh ­University have come up with a way to carry a drug directly into ­cancer cells. But only cancer cells – healthy ones remain untouched.

They have likened the light-­activated drug to a Trojan horse that can enter and kill cancer and bacterial cells when successfully trialled in zebrafish and human cells.

When the scientists combined the tiny cancer-killing molecule with a chemical food compound it tricked cancer cells into ingesting the drug.

The molecule – called SeNBD – passed through the cell’s defences much more easily than before.

Further tests will show if the drug is a safe way of treating early-stage cancers and drug-resistant bacteria.

For cells to survive they must ­assimilate chemical components of food such as sugars and amino acids for energy. So coupling the drug on to a food is key to its success.

Cancer and bacterial cells are greedy, tending to consume more and different types of food than healthy cells. So pairing SeNBD with a food makes it ideal to prey on harmful cells.

Until now, most light-activated drugs were too big for the cancer and ­bacterial cells to recognise them as normal food. SeNBD, on the other hand, is described by the researchers as a metabolic warhead. Harmful cells ingested the linked drug without being alerted to its toxic nature.

Dr Miriam Stoppard is the Mirror’s resident health columnist
(Image:

Daily Mirror)

As well as being small enough to enter cells, SeNBD is also a type of drug called a photosensitiser, which means it needs to be activated by visible light before it can kill cells. Switching on the drug with light means a surgeon could decide exactly where they want the drug to be active, avoiding the chances of attacking healthy tissue. So it prevents the kind of side effects, such as hair loss, caused by other anticancer drugs.

Professor Marc Vendrell, of 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, also at Edinburgh, said: “With SeNBD we can combine a light-activated drug with the food that cancerous and bacterial cells normally eat. This means we can deliver our Trojan horse through the front door of the cell rather than trying to batter through the cells’ defences.”

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