While it can often work wonders against invading cancer cells, chemotherapy can also bring on very undesirable side effects, such as hair loss, nausea and vomiting.
But the recent discovery of the structure of a certain molecule could potentially lead to the development of new drugs that could target tumors while avoiding damage to healthy tissue, resulting in possibly fewer side effects.
The molecule, known as a transporter, can carry specific anticancer and antiviral drugs directly into cells. The drugs can then prevent tumor cells from dividing and multiplying.
"If you really know what this transporter looks like, you can potentially design a cancer drug to be recognized by this transporter and carried into the cells, and you can lower the dose of cancer drugs and decrease the side effects as a result," said Seok-Yong Lee, an assistant professor of biochemistry at Duke University School of Medicine and lead author of the research, published online in the journal Nature.
Experts not involved with Lee's research say development of such drugs is still a very long way off, but focusing on the ability of a drug to get into cancer cells makes scientific sense.
"If it could be manipulated to help with drug delivery or avoiding the toxicity of these drugs. It could have clinical relevance years from now," said Dr. Minetta Liu, director of translational breast cancer research at the Georgetown Lombardi Comprehensive Cancer Center in Washington. "We have these very effective drugs, and the question is can we make them even more effective by giving them the homing devices for cancer cells so they can avoid normal cells?"
"There are two newer compounds that are doing that now. They can invade cells so we don't have to give as much of it to target tumors," said Dr. Stefan Gluck, a professor of medicine at the University of Miami's Miller School of Medicine.
Many other drugs that treat cancer, however, are administered intravenously and are distributed throughout the body.
"We need to achieve specific levels in cancer tissues, but at the same time, that level will be reached in normal tissues. Some of the normal tissues are sensitive to chemotherapy and can be harmed," Gluck explained. Damaging normal tissues can lead to a number of the effects often associated with chemotherapy.
Lee's research may be very preliminary, but cancer specialists believe if more drugs can act by directly targeting cancer cells, patients have a much better shot at tolerating them.
"Any effort to lessen the undesirable effects of cancer drugs is of merit," Gluck said.