Cancer treatments have come a long way in recent years, but still have toxic side effects and damage healthy cells. Australian researchers are hoping to solve these issues with synthetic gold-based molecules.
Molecular engineering researchers at RMIT University in Melbourne have created four new bioactive molecules based on the precious metal. In pre-clinical trials, researchers said these molecules wiped out cancer cells more effectively than the widely used anti-cancer drug cisplatin.
According to Dr Neda Mirzadeh, co-leader of the RMIT’s Molecular Engineering Group, previous metal-based drugs have successfully pushed cancer survival rates up, but have limitations such as toxic side effects, drug resistance and poor stability.
“We’ve made huge inroads in cancer treatment over recent decades, but the disease still kills more than 9.6 million people globally each year and remains the world’s second leading cause of death,” she said.
Mirzadeh said that her team’s engineered molecules were designed to be more selective and stable, with the ability to target cancer cells and leave healthy cells alone. They were also designed to counter drug resistance in patients, giving them the potential to remain more effective in the long term than existing chemotherapy treatments.
“Our results show there’s incredible potential here for the development of new cancer-fighting therapeutics that can deliver lasting power and precision,” Mirzadeh said.
Building on history
The study, published recently in Chemistry – A European Journal, stated that two of the compounds limited tumour growth in mice by 35.8 and 46.9 per cent respectively, compared to 29 per cent for platinum-based anti-cancer drug cisplatin.
Cisplatin is used to treat a range of cancers, but has a number of serious side effects that affect patients’ kidneys, bone marrow, hearts and hearing.
During pre-clinical tests, the researchers found that their gold-based molecules were effective against prostate, breast, colon and cervical cancer cells, as well as melanoma. They also observed anti-inflammatory properties that could make them useful as a treatment for arthritis.
Professor Suresh Bhargava heads up RMIT’s Centre of Advanced Materials and Industrial Chemistry (CAMIC), which encompasses the Molecular Engineering Group. He said gold had been used in medical applications for thousands of years in countries including China and India and was known to be readily accepted by the human body.
But the effectiveness of gold-based medical treatments has not yet been scientifically validated – a gap that Bhargava and Mirzadeh are hoping to fill with their research.
“Our work is helping both provide the evidence base that’s missing, as well as delivering new families of molecules that are tailor-made to amplify the natural healing properties of gold,” Bhargava explained.
The researchers are now seeking funding for clinical studies and regulatory approval of treatments using their engineered molecules.
Bhargava said research into gold-based medicines presented a big challenge, but like all great medical breakthroughs, it would progress in small steps.
“Each step brings us closer to our goal of translating our research to make a sustained and lasting impact on the world,” he said.