A study has found that the chemical sodium formate could make a metal-based cancer drug 50 times more effective at shutting down cancer cells.

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JS07 shuts down cancer cells by disrupting their energy-generating mechanism. The researchers found that it was particularly effective against ovarian cancer cells.

Researchers from the University of Warwick, UK, combined the chemical with a compound of the metal ruthenium called JS07. Alone, the drug exploits the weaknesses of cancer cells and disrupts their energy generation. In combination with sodium formate (E-237), however, the researchers found it was far more effective.

More commonly used as a preservative in items such as fruit juice and preserved vegetables, E-237 is derived from formic acid, commonly found in organisms such as stinging nettles and ants. In high concentrations, it can act as a diuretic but no side effects have been identified when E-237 is consumed in normal concentrations.

Stinging nettles themselves have a long history of medicinal use. Medieval Europeans used them to rid the body of excess water and to relieve joint pain. Today, people still use them in treatment for urinary problems, urinary tract infections, aches and pains, hay fever and insect bites.

“By itself, JS07 is capable of shutting down cancer cells but when used in combination with sodium formate this ability is significantly increased,” says lead researcher Prof. Peter Sadler. “As a result, lower doses would be required to target cancer cells – reducing both the drug’s toxicity and potential side effects.”

After developing a method with which to bind E-237 with JS07, the researchers discovered that the potent new form of the drug acts as a catalyst when interacting with cancer cells’ energy generation mechanism. By disrupting this mechanism, the drug causes the cells’ vital processes to cease, resulting in the cancer cells shutting down.

“Cancer cells require a complex balance of processes to survive,” Prof. Sadler explains. “When this balance is disrupted, the cell is unable to function due to a range of process failures and eventually shuts down. The potent form of JS07 has proven to be very successful when tested on ovarian cancer cells.”

This novel form of treatment is efficient as well as potent. Prof. Sadler describes how JS07 molecules can be reused with a fresh supply of E-237 once they have interacted with a cancer cell’s energy generation mechanism:

When the potent form of JS07 interacts with a cell’s energy generation mechanism, the sodium formate is used up in the process, but the JS07 itself is still viable to be used again. When it comes into contact with a fresh supply of sodium formate, it can again become potent, making this an efficient potential treatment”.

According to the American Cancer Society (ACS), it is estimated that around 21,290 women in the US will be diagnosed with ovarian cancer this year. Ovarian cancer is the fifth leading cause of cancer death among women in the US.

Ovarian cancer typically develops in older women, with around half of women diagnosed with the disease aged 63 years or older. The development of a form of treatment with reduced risk of side effects and toxicity could be extremely beneficial to this group, which may be more vulnerable to side effects than younger and healthier patients.

“It is clear that a new generation of drugs is necessary to save more lives and our research points to a highly effective way of defeating cancerous cells,” concludes co-researcher Dr. Isolda Romero-Canelón. The team’s research is published in Nature Communications.

Previously, Medical News Today reported on a study in which a mouse model of an aggressive form of ovarian cancer helped researchers identify two genes that appear to trigger, then hasten, the development of the cancer.