Scientists solve arsenic's cancer paradox

Cancer Research UK scientists have discovered how arsenic works as an effective treatment for leukaemia - according to a report in Nature Cell Biology.

Patients with a certain kind of leukaemia - acute promyelocytic leukaemia -can be successfully treated with arsenic, but scientists didn't know how the process worked.

Now scientists have solved the mystery of how arsenic can treat cancer, more targeted treatments with fewer side effects are likely to be developed.

Lead author, Cancer Research UK's Professor Ronald Hay based at the University of Dundee, said: "Our discovery is key to understanding how we can enhance the anti-cancer properties of this poison.

"Knowing the specific molecules involved allows us to now work on creating more targeted and effective cancer drugs with fewer side effects."

The scientists watched the drug at work in animal cells. They modified some cells to remove certain proteins and discovered the drug had different effects.

They found that arsenic helps molecules called SUMO stick onto proteins involved in leukaemia. An enzyme called RNF4 hunts down SUMO and breaks down the cancer-causing proteins.

Cancer Research UK's director of cancer information, Dr Lesley Walker, said: "Discovering which molecules are involved in this process is an exciting step forward in understanding this complex paradox - how can a chemical that causes cancer also cure it?

"It's a great piece of science that will hopefully lead to the development of drugs that home in on specific cancer-causing proteins to beat the disease."

For media enquiries please contact the Cancer Research UK press office on 020 7061 8300 or, out-of-hours, the duty press officer on 07050 264 059.

Notes to editors:

*RNF4 is a poly-SUMO-specific E3 ubiquitin ligase required for arsenic-induced PML degradation. Tatham et al. 2008. Nature Cell Biology.

** Arsenic trioxide (ATO) is used to treat acute promyelocytic leukaemia – a rare form of leukaemia. Around 60 cases are diagnosed each year in England. It is used in patients who have relapsed or are resistant to other drugs.

Arsenic is one of the most dangerous chemicals in cigarettes, causing lung cancer in smokers.

About the University of Dundee

The University of Dundee has powered its way to an internationally recognised position of excellence in life sciences and medical research with particular expertise in cancer, diabetes and tropical diseases. The University has both a 5* rated medical school and College of Life Sciences, with research expanding from "the cell to the clinic to the community", and has a larger medical research complex than the National Institute for Medical Research in London. The University has an excellent track record in attracting research income and commercialising research activity. See the University homepage for further details.

About Cancer Research UK

  • Together with its partners and supporters, Cancer Research UK's vision is to beat cancer.
  • Cancer Research UK carries out world-class research to improve understanding of the disease and find out how to prevent, diagnose and treat different kinds of cancer.
  • Cancer Research UK ensures that its findings are used to improve the lives of all cancer patients.
  • Cancer Research UK helps people to understand cancer, the progress that is being made and the choices each person can make.
  • Cancer Research UK works in partnership with others to achieve the greatest impact in the global fight against cancer.


The opinions expressed here are the views of the writer and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of News Medical.
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