The research, a collaborative project between Queen's University Belfast and Ulster University, began at the Queen's Centre for Cancer Research and Cell Biology (CCRCB) in 2014, and was led by Professor Mohamed El-Tanani.
Professor El-Tanani discovered the peptide drug which blocks a protein known as RAN. High levels of RAN have been linked to aggressive tumour growth, cancer spread, resistance to chemotherapy and poor prognosis in a number of cancers, including triple negative breast cancer (TNBC).
The team, which also includes the University of Bradford where Professor El-Tanani is now based, has developed a nanoparticle to help deliver the drug directly into cancer cells.
Laboratory tests showed that when this nanoparticle, loaded with the peptide, was added to the triple negative breast cancer cells, the cells would actively take it in. Their growth rate was then reduced, and around two thirds of the cells died within 24 hours. This compared with the peptide on its own, or an empty nanoparticle, which had no impact on the cells' growth.
Dr Kyle Matchett from Queen's CCRCB, and an author in the study, said: "The peptide prevents RAN from being activated but in its normal form it degrades quickly reducing its effectiveness. This novel delivery mechanism of using a small capsule known as a nanoparticle allows the drug to directly target the cancer cells and increases its effect."
Dr Matchett added that the research is potentially life-saving, "We are one step closer to a new treatment and we will now do further pre-clinical experiments in the laboratory prior to the clinical trials stage."
The research was recently published in the International Journal of Pharmaceutics.