Rare Metal Could Turbocharge Cancer Light Therapies

A team of European and Chinese researchers has developed a light-activated cancer therapy containing the rare metal iridium that could potentially activate the immune system against cancer.  

In a study published in Nature Chemistry, the drug killed multiple types of cancer cells in a dish when activated by red light. The study also revealed that the cancer cells died via a programmed process called immunogenic apoptosis. Unlike regular programmed cell death, this process is able to activate immune cells against tumor cells.

The ability of metal compounds to induce an immunogenic response in the body that may effectively vaccinate a person against future attack by cancer is an exciting development,” stated Peter Sadler, Professor at the University of Warwick, UK, and one of the lead researchers in the study. “It is very speculative, but we are looking further into the hallmarks of that.”

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The drug works by blocking a molecule critical for producing energy in the cell called nicotinamide adenine dinucleotide. Since tumor cells need lots of energy to grow, they die quickly when they lose this energy source. This mechanism has an advantage over current cancer light therapies because it can kill tumors lacking oxygen, which are resistant to standard light-activated drugs.

According to Sadler, the researchers are now looking for companies interested in commercializing the discovery. Before taking the treatment to clinical trials, they still need to understand how the iridium drug is broken down in the body, and which tumor targets they will focus on. 

Although iridium is roughly the same price as gold, Sadler thinks that the therapy could be competitively priced. “We expect our treatment to work at low doses and not to be much more expensive than current platinum treatment,” he told me.


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