Chemical Found in Insects Improves Cancer Drug

Formic acid from stinging nettles and ants greatly increases treatment's ability to shut down cancer cells.

Formic acid from stinging nettles and ants greatly increases treatment’s ability to shut down cancer cells.

Insects may hold the key to significantly improve the efficacy of cancer drugs, a recent study indicates.

Researchers in the UK found that a cancer drug can be made 50 times more effective through the addition of a chemical found in stinging nettles and ants. The study, published in Nature Communications, evaluated the chemical sodium formate in combination with a metal-based cancer treatment, which markedly improved the drug’s ability to shut down cancer cells.

The cancer drug is a compound of the metal ruthenium JS07, which can take advantage of the natural weakness in cancer cells and disrupts the energy generation mechanism of the cell. During testing on ovarian cancer cells, the combination of sodium formate with JS07 was found to be 50 times more effective than treatment with JS07 alone.

Sodium formate (E-237), which is a common food preservative, is derived from formic acid commonly found in natural organisms, such as nettles and ants. The researchers developed a method that binds sodium formate with JS07 into a new and highly potent form of the drug.

The study found this potent form of JS07 can serve as a catalyst during interaction with the energy-generating mechanism of cancer cells by disrupting that mechanism and stopping the vital processes of cancer cells from functioning, which causes the cell to shut down.

"Cancer cells require a complex balance of processes to survive,” lead researcher Professor Peter Sadler said in a press release. “When this balance is disrupted the cell is unable to function due to a range of process failures and eventually shuts down. The potent form of JS07 has proven to be very successful when tested on ovarian cancer cells."

The combination therapy may offer cancer patients several potential benefits compared with other treatments, including decreased adverse events, according to the study.

"By itself, JS07 is capable of shutting down cancer cells but when used in combination with sodium formate this ability is significantly increased,” Sadler said. “As a result, lower doses would be required to target cancer cells -- reducing both the drug's toxicity and potential side-effects.”

The researchers also found that once the JS07 combination has interacted with the energy generation mechanism, the non-potent JS07 molecules that remain can then be reused in combination with a new supply of sodium formate.

"When the potent form of JS07 interacts with a cell's energy generation mechanism, the sodium formate is used up in the process, but the JS07 itself is still viable to be used again,” Sadler added. “When it comes into contact with fresh supply of sodium formate it can again become potent, making this an efficient potential treatment."

The findings of the study may eventually help to substantially enhance cancer survival rates, the researchers concluded.

"Current statistics indicate that one in every three people will develop some kind of cancer during their life time, moreover approximately one woman dies of ovarian cancer every two hours in the UK according to Cancer Research UK,” the study authors wrote. “It is clear that a new generation of drugs is necessary to save more lives and our research points to a highly effective way of defeating cancerous cells."