Anticancer drug strategy: making cells choke on copper

What do cancer cells have in common with horseshoe crabs and Mr. Spock from Star Trek?

They all depend upon copper. Horseshoe crabs have blue blood because they use copper to transport oxygen in their blood instead of iron (hemocyanin vs hemoglobin). Vulcans’ blood was supposed to be green, for the same reason.

To be sure, all our cells need copper. Many human enzymes use the metal to catalyze important reactions, but cancer cells seem to need it more than healthy cells. Manipulating the body’s flow of copper is emerging as an anticancer drug strategy.

A team of scientists from University of Chicago, Emory and Shanghai have developed compounds that interfere with copper transport inside cells. These compounds inhibit the growth of several types of cancer cells, with minimal effects on the growth of non-cancerous cells, the researchers report in Nature Chemistry.

“We’re taking a tactic that’s different from other approaches. These compounds actually cause copper to accumulate inside cells,” says co-senior author Jing Chen, PhD, professor of hematology and medical oncology at Emory University School of Medicine and Winship Cancer Institute. He is also a faculty member in the CB and MSP programs.

Click here to view the full story in Lab Land, the Emory Health Sciences Research Blog.  A related story can also be found in Chemical & Engineering News.