Cancer cells usually have higher metabolic activity than normal cells, which is part of what helps them grow uncontrolled – but this may also be their weakness. Leukemia is particularly vulnerable to “cocktail” drugs that target the internal structure of cells, according to researchers at Rice University.
In the middle of most human cells, there is a structure called mitochondria, which converts oxygen and nutrients from food to energy. This energy takes a chemical form called adenosine triphosphate (ATP).
In order to grow and reproduce quickly, cancer cells require a large amount of ATP. Scientists have studied cutting the supply line as a potentially useful way to fight cancer. A drug that targets mitochondria is called mitocans. For the new study, scientists at Rice University set out to study which types of cancer are most vulnerable to mitocans.
Natasha Kirienko, lead researcher on the study, said: “We first identified a potential link between cancer types and their sensitivity to specific types of chemotherapy (mitochondrial targeted drugs). Our bioinformatics analysis includes 60 cell lines from nine different cancer types, indicating that leukemia cells are particularly sensitive to mitochondrial damage. “
After computer analysis, the researchers then began testing mitochondria in acute myeloid leukemia cells in a laboratory environment. Not only are these drugs effective for cancer, but another drug (glycoenzyme inhibitor) has been found to enhance this effect. Glycolysis is the process of breaking down glucose into energy molecules, including ATP, so it is reasonable to believe that inhibiting the process inhibits the growth of cancer.
In some tests, the team showed that the drugs killed up to 86 percent of leukemia cells. Importantly, although up to 30% of cells die, these drugs have little effect on healthy blood cells. The team stressed that healthy cells have about five times higher survival rates than previous anti-cancer drugs. Interestingly, the team also found a predictor of how the drug combination might play a role in a given individual.
“The more effective they are, the greater the resistance to mitochondrial targeted drugs,” Kirienko said. If this is true, doctors can test this particular parameter of mitochondrial health from a patient’s sample relatively simple and predict whether the treatment is effective. “
The researchers say they are currently studying other combinations of mitocans and what other types of cancer they can fight.
The study was published in the journal Cell Death and Disease.