Rubbing salt in a wound causes pain. But researchers now think that applying salt to a cancer — mesothelioma, for instance — could cause healing.
The healing would come about as malignant cells die off from overdosing on salt, say the researchers who figured out that putting cancer on a massively sodium-rich diet isn’t healthy for the disease.
But it turns out you can’t feed salt to cancer by sprinkling more of it on the foods you eat. The salt must be injected into the cancer cells. This isn’t simple to accomplish.
According to the researchers, both healthy and cancerous cells contain concentrations of ions. Both types of cells like it when their ion concentrations don’t rise too high or drop too low.
If the ion concentration gets way out of whack, the cells know to shut down. By shutting down, they cause their own death. Apoptosis is the name scientists give to this death process.
Unfortunately, you can’t trick a cancer cell into shutting down by deliberately knocking its ion concentrations out of balance. Instead, the cell reacts with a trick of its own that brings the ion concentration right back to where it’s supposed to be.
And by bringing the ion levels back to normal, the cancer cell avoids apoptosis.
Healthy cells don’t react that way. They just die off.
The solution to this problem comes from the University of Texas at Austin working hand-in-glove with five other institutions around the world.
Together they created an artificial molecule that out-tricks the cancer cell. Specifically, it prevents the cancer cell from normalizing the level of two groups of ions – ions of sodium and ions of chloride.
As a result, a cancer cell injected with this special molecule plus a generous portion of sodium and chloride — salt, in other words — can’t stop apoptosis from occurring.
The researchers describe this advance in the Aug. 11 edition of the journal Nature Chemistry.
Mesothelioma Treatment May Emerge
The new molecule is formally known as a synthetic ion transporter.
Synthetic ion transporters themselves aren’t new — they go back roughly 20 years. However, this marks the first time one has successfully worked its magic against actual cells.
Prof. Jonathan Sessler of the University of Texas at Austin’s College of Natural Sciences is one of the study’s co-authors. He says the synthetic ion transporter is a “chemist’s dream.”
Here are the technical details of the molecule. First, it’s designed to bind to chloride ions. Once binding occurs, it cloaks the identity of the chloride so that the cell thinks the chloride is something else — sodium.
The synthetic ion transport has a preference for using a sodium-friendly passageway leading to the interior of the cell. As a result, actual sodium ions are able to tag along with the molecule and its disguised chloride ion as they enter the cell.
The cell never realizes it has been breached by both sodium and chloride, which together form salt. The cancer cell never has a chance at halting the wild change in internal ion concentrations triggered by the salt’s presence.
This weapon works against healthy and cancerous cells alike. So researchers say they must now figure out a way to program the synthetic ion transporter to only be effective against the cancerous cells.
Serious Cancer Research Involved
Development of the sodium-chloride transporter was paid for by in part by a grant from the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Basic Energy Sciences.
Funding also came from South Korea through that country’s National Creative Research Initiative and the Korea Research Institute of Bioscience and Biotechnology.
The University of Texas at Austin is justifiably proud of the contributions of its researchers. The participation of Sessler, a major figure in the field, indicates that this has been a very important endeavor.
Sessler holds more than 70 patents for his discoveries and has more than 590 research publications and two books to his name. He co-founded Pharmacyclics, a publicly traded corporation dedicated to developing new cancer therapies.
Mesothelioma Victims Could Benefit
The immediate next step for the researchers is to test the synthetic ion transporters in animals. The work so far has been limited to testing with cells in the lab.
“We have demonstrated that this mechanism is viable, that this idea that’s been around for over two decades is scientifically valid, and that’s exciting,” Sessler is quoted by the university as saying.
“We were able to show sodium is really going in, chloride is really going in,” he said. “This is exciting because it points the way towards a new approach to anticancer drug development.”