New Lab Technique Churns out Fungus' Potential Cancer Fighter

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Killing Cancer

For the first time, researchers have developed a way to synthesize a cancer-killing compound called rasfonin in enough quantity to learn how it works.

Derived from a fungus discovered clinging to the walls of a New Zealand cave, the chemical tricks certain cancer cells into suicide while leaving healthy cells untouched.

"In 2000, scientists in Japan discovered that this compound might have some tremendous potential as a prototype anticancer agent, but no one has been able to study or develop it because it's so hard to get enough of it from natural sources," says Robert K. Boeckman, professor of chemistry.

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"You either grow the fungus that makes it, or you go through a complicated chemical synthesis process that still yields only a minute amount," he says. "Now, after five years of effort, we've worked out a process that lets researchers finally produce enough rasfonin to really start investigating how it functions, and how we might harness it to fight cancer."

In 2000, researchers from Chiba University in Japan and the University of Tokyo simultaneously discovered a compound in certain fungi that selectively destroyed cells depending upon a gene called ras - one of the first known cancer-causing genes. They had found rasfonin, a compound that seemed tailor-made to knock out ras-dependent cancers like pancreatic cancer.

After six years, however, rasfonin's secrets remain a mystery because researchers can't make enough of it to carry out tests.

To bring about a new drug, organic chemists must produce a new chemical in enough quantity to test it under many different circumstances to tease out its modus operandi. Until now, no method existed to generate rasfonin, aside from growing more fungus

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