Researchers have identified new molecules that kill cancer cells while protecting healthy cells and that could be used to treat a variety of different cancers. The research shines a light on what happens to cells at the moment they become cancerous.

The research and pre-clinical trial results were published this month as an open access article in EBioMedicine, a new joint research-clinical journal from the editors of Cell and The Lancet.

Professor Qing-Bin Lu, from the University of Waterloo’s Faculty of Science, initiated a novel molecular-mechanism-based program to discover a new class of non-platinum-based-halogenated molecules that kill cancer cells, yet prevent healthy cells from being damaged.

Diagram of Femtomedicine.

The most effective cancer drugs today may kill cancer cells, but they also kill healthy cells, causing severe side effects for patients in the process.

Femtosecond time-resolved laser spectroscopy is a technique traditionally applied to study chemical reactions as they occur on a molecular level. The laser takes a series of rapid “snapshots” of molecules as they interact and change structure over time. The technique is part of a potential new field of science developed by Professor Lu called femtomedicine (FMD),  which integrats the ultrafast laser with molecular biology and cell biology.

Professor Lu has applied the tool to understand the molecular mechanisms that cause cancer at the very moment when the DNA becomes damaged. He has also used it to investigate how radiation therapy and chemotherapy using chemical agents, in particular the widely used platinum chemotherapeutic Cisplatin, work in treating a variety of cancers.

“We know DNA damage is the initial step,” said Professor Lu. “With the novel femtomedicine approach we can go back to the very beginning to find out what causes DNA damage in the first place, then mutation, and then cancer.”

By understanding more about the fundamental mechanisms of the diseases, Professor Lu pre-selected molecules most likely to be effective as anti-cancer agents. In this case, he discovered a new family of non-platinum-based molecules similar in structure to Cisplatin but containing no toxic platinum.

Pre-clinical studies with various cultured human cells as well as on rodents show that these new molecules are effective against cervical, breast, ovarian, and lung cancers.

Cisplatin, discovered more than 40 years ago, is an important, widely used platinum-based anti-cancer agent. Unfortunately, the inclusion of platinum in the molecule causes serious side effects like neurotoxicity, kidney damage, hearing loss, nausea and vomiting.

“It is extremely rare to discover anti-cancer agents that can selectively kill cancer cells and protect healthy cells, as well as being effective in treating many different types of cancer and having a novel molecular mechanism of action. These candidate drugs should have a high potential to pass through clinical trials and could ultimately save lives”, said Professor Lu.

Professor Lu has already applied for patents on the new family of non-platinum-based-halogenated molecules that he has discovered and hopes to start clinical trials soon.

The paper’s co-authors include Professor Lu’s team members from Waterloo Qin-Rong Zhang, Ning Ou, Chun-Rong Wang, and Jenny Warrington. Professor Lu is a University Research Chair in the Department of Physics and Astronomy and holds cross-appointments in the departments of Biology and Chemistry.

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