Professor Tom Cotter, chair of biochemistry at the university, said the team targeted acute leukaemia, a difficult-to-treat cancer, but he did not expect the experiments to work as well as they did.
“In fact, I was so surprised with the results I kept looking at them for ages; I couldn’t really believe what I was seeing,” Prof Cotter said yesterday.
The scientists at UCC developed a molecule derived from the berries of the Bloodhorn tree and found that their novel compound reduced leukaemia tumours by up to 70% in mice.
The discovery is published in the journal Investigational New Drugs and the research team is seeking funding to see if the compound kills leukaemia cells from patients.
Leukaemia develops far less frequently than many other cancers, but research in the area has paved the way for virtually all of the major advances in other cancers.
Chemotherapy, used to treat most cancers, was first developed to treat leukaemia.
The scientists sought to improve ellipticine, isolated from the berries of the Ochrosia Elliptica tree — commonly called the Bloodhorn tree — that grows on the northeast coast of Australia and in the rain forests of Brazil.
While scientists knew about its strong anti-cancer activity since the 1960s, it was never fully investigated because it was toxic and difficult to deliver to tumours.
Dr Florence McCarthy, who leads a team of researchers in medicinal and pharmaceutical chemistry at UCC, said they took the natural product and restyled it with unique features to improve the potency and solubility.
After the National Cancer Institute in the US found the molecule showed promise against leukaemia, Prof Cotter came on board to see if it could become a marketed drug. With funding mainly from the Children’s Leukaemia Research Project and the Irish Cancer Society, they looked at how effective it might be in killing cancer cells. “The fact that Tom ran across campus to deliver the results to me, rather than use the cursory email, indicated the significance of our findings,” said Dr McCarthy.
Elaine O’Sullivan in Dr McCarthy’s research group developed the molecule and she has been funded by the Irish Research Council, the Programme for Research in Third Level Institutions, Cancer Research Ireland, and Waters Ireland.