Researchers have developed what they say is a fast and inexpensive method to create artificial peptides that fight cancer.
Lead author Prof. Peter Scott, of the University of Warwick in the UK, and colleagues say the newly created artificial molecules imitate the cancer- and infection-fighting properties of peptides that a healthy body produces naturally.
They have already proven successful against colon cancer cells in laboratory tests, according to the team.
Past research has looked at the use of artificial peptides for cancer treatment, but the team notes there have been some challenges.
Artificial peptides have been difficult and expensive to produce in large numbers, for example. Furthermore, when delivered to the body in drug form, they have been quickly neutralized by the body's biochemical defenses before they have a chance to work.
But in this latest study, Prof. Scott and colleagues detail a new technique that they say can create effective artificial peptides in minutes without the use of expensive equipment.
Making new peptides is 'like self-assembling a Lego Death Star'
To create the new artificial peptides - called triplexes - the researchers used what they describe as a "complex chemical self-assembly" process, resulting in triplexes that have a similar "3D helix" structure to natural peptides.
"When the organic chemicals involved - an amino alcohol derivative and a pico line - are mixed with iron chloride in a solvent, such as water or methanol, they form strong bonds and are designed to naturally fold together in minutes to form a helix," explains Prof. Scott. "It's all thermodynamically downhill. The assembly instructions are encoded in the chemicals themselves."
He adds that once the solvent is removed, all that remains are the triplexes in crystal form.
Prof. Scott likens the process to the self-assembling of a Lego Death Star:
"The chemistry involved is like throwing Lego blocks into a bag, giving them a shake, and finding that you made a model of the Death Star. The design to achieve that takes some thought and computing power, but once you've worked it out the method can be used to make a lot of complicated molecular objects."
He notes that in practical terms, the chemistry behind this process is "pretty conventional," but inducing the process artificially is more complex.
"The beauty is that these big molecules assemble themselves," says Prof. Scott. "Nature uses this kind of self-assembly to make complex asymmetric molecules like proteins all the time, but doing it artificially is a major challenge."
Although the triplexes have proven effective against colon cancer cells, the team says more research is warranted before they can be applied to patients in clinical trials.
But the researchers add that the molecules have shown promise so far. In tests, the team was surprised to find that they have no significant toxicity to Staphylococcus aureus and Escherichia coli bacteria.
Last month, Medical News Today reported on a study published in The FASEB Journal, revealing the development of a simple blood test for cancer.