A substance found in ants and stinging nettles could be used as a cancer treatment.

New research suggests that stinging nettles and ants may contain a substance that could aid in cancer treatment.

Researchers from the University of Warwick have developed a new treatment that can effectively and selectively destroy cancer cells, which involves an organic-osmium compound that is activated with a non-toxic dose of sodium formate—a substance found in the perennial flowering plant stinging nettle as well as in ants.

The compound—dubbed JPC11—targets a metabolic process that cancer cells rely on to survive and multiply by converting a key substance used by cancer cells to provide the energy the cancer cells need for rapid division into an unnatural lactate—ultimately leading to the cell’s destruction.

“This is a significant step in the fight against cancer,” James Coverdale, Ph.D., a research fellow from Warwick's Department of Chemistry, said in a statement. “Manipulating and applying well-established chemistry in a biological context provides a highly selective strategy for killing cancer cells.

“We have discovered that chemo-catalyst JPC11 has a unique mechanism of action, and we hope that this will lead to more effective, selective and safer treatments in the future.”

The chemo-catalyst treatment can also be recycled and reused within a cancer cell to attack it repeatedly, which could lead to future anticancer drugs being administered in smaller, more effective and possibly less toxic doses. Thiswould be particularly useful in treating ovarian and prostate cancers.

Ovarian cancers are becoming increasingly resistant to existing chemotherapy drugs, including the commonly used platinum drug, cisplatin.

JPC11also opens up the potential for more selective cancer treatments, asit has shown the ability to specifically target the biochemistry of cancer cells, leaving the healthy cells largely unharmed.

“Platinum compounds are the most widely used drugs for cancer chemotherapy, but we urgently need to respond to the challenges of circumventing resistance and side-effects,” Peter Sadler, a medicinal chemist at the University of Warwick, said in a statement. “Our lab is focused on the discovery of truly novel anticancer drugs which can kill cells in totally new ways.

“Chemo-catalysts, especially those with immunogenic properties, might provide a breakthrough,” he added.

Molecular asymmetry or handedness is crucial to the function of bio-molecules in the body. In this case, the osmium compound JPC11, with sodium formate, can selectively produce a molecule of a specific molecular asymmetry, thus manipulating how cancer cells grow.

“The 'handedness' of molecules is critical in the body,” Coverdale said. “Our hands are near-identical, but are mirror images of each other.

“The same can be true of molecules, and in some cases, having the wrong handed molecule can have profound biological consequences,” he added. “We believe that manipulation of the 'handedness' of molecules in cells could provide a new strategy for fighting diseases.”

The study was published in Nature Chemistry.