Chemists find help from nature in fighting cancer

Inspired by a chemical that fungi secrete to defend their territory, MIT chemists have synthesized and tested several dozen compounds that may hold promise as potential cancer drugs.

 
MIT chemists designed many variants of epipolythiodiketopiperazine (ETP) alkaloids and tested them for anticancer activity. A representative ETP structure is shown.

A few years ago, MIT researchers led by associate professor of chemistry Mohammad Movassaghi became the first to chemically synthesise 11,11'-dideoxyverticillin, a highly complex fungal compound that has shown anti-cancer activity in previous studies.

This and related compounds naturally occur in such small amounts that it has been difficult to do a comprehensive study of the relationship between the compound's structure and its activity - research that could aid drug development, Movassaghi says.

''There's a lot of data out there, very exciting data, but one thing we were interested in doing is taking a large panel of these compounds, and for the first time, evaluating them in a uniform manner,'' Movassaghi says.

In the new study, recently published online in the journal Chemical Science, Movassaghi and colleagues at MIT and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (UIUC) designed and tested 60 compounds for their ability to kill human cancer cells.

''What was particularly exciting to us was to see, across various cancer cell lines, that some of them are quite potent,'' Movassaghi says.