While the results are dramatic, clinical trials with the chemical, 3-bromopyruvate, are likely some years away, says the study's leader, Young Ko, Ph.D., assistant professor of radiology and biological chemistry. If tests in the lab continue to be promising, however, the chemical or one like it may become an option for treating advanced liver cancers and perhaps other tumors in people.
"Liver cancer usually isnt detected in people until its difficult or impossible to treat, and many other aggressive cancers spread to the liver, so we need more treatment options," says Peter Pedersen, Ph.D., professor of biological chemistry in the Institute for Basic Biomedical Sciences at Johns Hopkins. "The compound Dr. Ko tested in animals targets a fundamental process cancer cells need to survive, can kill big tumors, and appears so far to have little or no effect on normal tissues."
In fact, Ko says she hasn't been able to find a toxic dose of the compound, which blocks the two ways cancer cells make energy. In earlier experiments with rabbits with liver cancer, reported in 2002, no obvious toxic effects were seen, either. There is a patent pending on possible cancer applications of the compound.
While the details of normal cells' protection are still unclear, the scientists suggest cancer cells well-known appetite for sugar might be behind their demise. Ko, who first studied the compound as a graduate student at Washington State University in 1990 and initiated its study at Hopkins, has shown that it completely blocks cancer cells' conversion of sugar into usable energy, a process necessary to fuel the cells' functions and growth.