News & Politics

The Cancer Moonshot May Have Just Taken Off Thanks to a Light-Activated 'Trojan Horse' Miracle Drug

(Ewa Krawczyk/National Cancer Institute via AP)

Scottish researchers at the University of Edinburgh have tested a “Trojan Horse” drug that can kill cancer cells and bacterial cells without damaging nearby tissues. Because cancer cells need to consume high amounts of food for energy to continue to reproduce, these researchers decided to target their eating habits, with very encouraging results:

Scientists at the University of Edinburgh combined the tiny cancer-killing molecule SeNBD with a chemical food compound to trick malignant cells into ingesting it.

The peer-reviewed experimental study was carried out on zebrafish and human cells, but researchers say more studies are needed to confirm if it is a safe and swift method of treating early stage cancer and drug-resistant bacteria.

The team combined a tiny cancer-killing molecule SeNBD and a chemical food compound that the insatiable cancer cells enjoy, creating a “metabolic warhead.” The combination prevents the cancer cells from identifying the threat and readily ingesting the SeNBD that seeks to destroy them in studies done to date. The deadly molecule is also a light-activated photosensitizer. This quality means it goes to work when a surgeon quite literally turns it on. Pretty ironic, given the media freak-out when President Trump posited that UV light might be a treatment for some illnesses.

The light-activated nature of the molecule may allow for unparalleled precision in treating tumors. It will permit surgeons to precisely place the poisoned food in the area where the cancer cells exist and activate them to work in the cancer cells they light up. Any of the medication that migrates into nearby tissues will not be activated, reducing the therapy’s impact on healthy cells.

According to researchers:

Lead researcher Professor Marc Vendrell, 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.”

According to Dr Sam Benson, a post-doctoral researcher at the university, “The mechanism of the drug’s delivery means it is delivered through the “front door of the cell” rather than having to “find a way to batter through the cell’s defenses”.

This technology could be an unparalleled miracle for cancer patients. Not only is a cancer diagnosis one that can devastate families, but the treatment is also often a terrible physical and psychological burden. Because many forms of chemotherapy and radiation target the body’s cells during specific points in the reproductive process, they can cause significant side effects. Their effects are not limited only to the cancer cells. They can also affect other cells in the body at the same point in the cellular reproductive process.

The current treatments are non-specific, resulting in nausea, vomiting and other forms of gastrointestinal problems, hair loss, and skin problems. Having supported more than one friend fighting for her health as she selected the wig she would wear to cover her now baby-fine hair, and held more than one basin while a cancer patient suffered from intractable vomiting, the idea of a drug without these side effects is a more than a blessing. It would also eliminate the need to pile on more drugs to treat these symptoms in an already weakened body.

The application to cancers that patients view as a death sentence, such as pancreatic, some types of brain, liver, and certain leukemias, could give hope to millions in the future. It does not appear from the studies that the treatment would be limited to certain types of cancer, as many forms of chemotherapy are. It simply capitalizes on the fact that all cancer cells are ravenous.

This technology may also have the added benefit of treating drug-resistant bacteria. The resistance of some strains of bacteria to available antibiotics is one of the perplexing challenges in treating infectious diseases. Tuberculosis and staphylococcus both have drug-resistant strains that lead to severe illness and death. That SeNBD as a Trojan Horse may treat these as well makes it a double miracle.

That this treatment has been successful in cellular studies is a significant breakthrough. Suppose Joe Biden is serious about his moonshot to cure cancer. If that’s the case, the administration needs to gather the best minds in cancer and pharmaceutical research and help the pioneering researchers in Scotland bring this research to a commercial application. The mRNA research took decades before scientists could successfully apply it in the new COVID-19 vaccine. With a potential technology to cure a primary cause of death globally, it would be unconscionable to wait that long. Being a part of this breakthrough, if successfully applied, is the best legacy President Biden could hope for at this point.