Two Chilean scientists at the Universidad Andrés Bello have developed a new compound that could have immediate impacts on the diagnosis of cancer, and may lead to a revolutionary pharmaceutical treatment of the disease.
The compound, which can identify and attack cancerous cells, is a compound of rhenium salt molecules, a heavy metal which is rarely found in nature but is obtained as a byproduct of processing other minerals.
The substance is remarkably successful in isolating cancerous from healthy cells, emitting a red fluorescence once it comes into contact with cancerous cells.
“At a certain concentration it inflicts approximately 90 percent more damage to the tumor cells than normal cells,” explained Rodrigo Ramírez-Tagle, who co-wrote the paper with Ramiro Arratia.
The idea for the project came in 1999, when Arratia was studying the use of rhenium in the manufacture of solar energy cells. The molecules’ ability to emit red fluorescence opened Arratia to the possibility of its use as a method of detecting cancer cells.
The Chilean team worked with the University of Arizona to synthesize rhenium salts to generate a molecular compound, which was subsequently tested in Chile on three types of human cells: healthy and cancerous cells of the skin and liver.
The team is hoping to use the breakthrough to develop a drug that could one day treat cancer, but as it can detect cancer cells within 48 hours, Ramirez-Tagle sees its immediate benefits in early diagnosis.
“In the team we don’t see this as just a potential drug, but a quick diagnostic kit,” the scientist said. “So people who are waiting six months could have a diagnosis within a week and start their treatment in time.”
In addition, the development of the molecule could open the door for new business opportunities. According to a report prepared in 2011 by the US Geological Survey (USGS), in 2010 Chile produced 25,000 kilos of rhenium, representing 52 percent of world production.
The project received financial support from the National Fund of Scientific and Technological Development and will be published by Britain’s Royal Society of Chemistry in the New Journal of Chemistry.