Can sugars cure cancer?

Cancer is one of the leading causes of death in the developed world. One of the reasons that makes cancer so hard to treat, is the fact that it is caused by mutations of healthy cells within our bodies. Thus, a great deal of scientific research is devoted to developing new selective ways to target cancer cells whilst leaving healthy ones alone.

Many people picture DNA to exist in its double helix form, however, DNA can actually exist in a wide range of structures: from single-stranded up to four-stranded or quadruplex DNA. This type of four-stranded DNA structure is a relatively new discovery, which occurs in several regions throughout the body and is especially prevalent in cancer cells.

One of the consequences of the mutations that have converted a healthy cell into a cancerous one is the production of an enzyme called telomerase. Telomerase is responsible for providing cancer with its cellular immortality and works by binding to a region of single-stranded DNA called “telomeric DNA”. However, the DNA in this region is also able to form four-stranded structures, in which case the telomerase is unable to bind to it.

This is where chemists like myself come in. If we can encourage the formation of these four-stranded structures by using a small molecule that can attach to the telomeric DNA, we can then inhibit the Telomerase. Inhibition of this enzyme leads to cellular death and since Telomerase is overexpressed in 90% of cancer cells, this would mean the death of these cancerous cells.

My project - which is co-funded by Novartis - is aimed at looking if modified natural sugars can be used as small molecules that bind to 4-stranded DNA structures. Other similar drugs are poorly water soluble and are excreted by the body, which is why none of them have successfully made it to market so far. Carbohydrates can overcome these problems and to date have never been looked at in this context, so hopefully I can develop some new anti-cancer drugs!

Steve Street, 2012 Cohort
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