Abigail Klein Leichman
November 12, 2009, Updated September 12, 2012

An Israeli researcher has stumbled on a drug that kills cancer cells without harming normal cells, paving the way for a more effective treatment against cancer.


An Israeli research scientist has accidentally discovered a chemical compound that eradicates cancer cells without harming normal cells in the process.

The substance may prove to be the long sought-after “holy grail” in the wider field of cancer treatment. For now, it shows promise as a specific weapon against breast cancer.

Prof. Malka Cohen-Armon, a biochemist at Tel Aviv University, tells ISRAEL21C that the compound is a component of a family of drugs developed 10 years ago to preserve nerve cells stressed by a stroke or inflammation. But further study showed the drugs were inappropriate for their intended use, and they were released only for research purposes.

Cohen-Armon and her team of researchers began working with the drugs to study how the compound affected signal transmission within the nucleus of cells. Their goal was to find an application for DNA repair. Its effect on cancer cells was an unexpected, and potentially huge, discovery.

“We found that those drugs somehow turn on a mechanism in cancer cells that causes them to die within 48 to 72 hours without harming normal tissue,” explains Cohen-Armon, a professor in the Neufeld Cardiac Research Institute of TAU’s Sackler School of Medicine. “In fact, the normal cells continue to proliferate even in the presence of the drug.”

In experiments with female mice, the compound was injected with several types of cancerous tissue, particularly breast-cancer cells. Cohen-Armon was amazed to discover that the substance suspends cell division in both cancerous and normal body cells – but while cancer cells never recover, normal cells are back in business within 12 hours.

Normal cells in business 12 hours later

“If we had tried to look for some drug that would do this, it would have taken us a lot of time,” says Cohen-Armon, whose latest findings appear in the current issue of the international peer-reviewed journal Journal of Breast Cancer Research.

The potential applications of such a drug are enormous, admits Cohen. Today, in the US alone, about 1.3 million women are diagnosed with breast cancer annually, while 465,000 women die from the disease annually according to the American Cancer Society.

Patients diagnosed with the disease must undergo chemotherapy and radiotherapy, both of which are aggressive treatments that kill cancerous and healthy cells causing severe side effects in the patient. In some cases, patients undergoing chemotherapy can even die from the side effects of the treatment.

“We actually found the Achilles heel of the cancer cell,” Cohen-Armon said in an article in Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz. “As soon as you can target cancerous cells without killing healthy ones, you can produce medications that would cause a lot less suffering to the patient. We can even give a much more aggressive treatment without worrying about harming healthy tissues.”

Cohen-Armon, who is working with veterinarian Dr. David Castel, Sheba Cancer Research Center scientist Dr. Shai Izraeli and PhD student Asher Castiel, hopes that in future, the drug could also be used for other types of cancer.

“If we can understand the molecular mechanism well, then perhaps [we can identify] other drugs that could be used even more efficiently and for other cancers,” she explains, adding that today the researchers still have no idea exactly why the drug affects cells in this way. “Then we can give a drug specific to whatever cancer a patient has, and with no side effects.”

A breakthrough that needs support

At present Cohen-Armon and her team are restricted to exploring the effects of this drug on breast cancer alone as the drug is patented to a US pharmaceutical corporation until 2017. The university’s technology transfer company, Ramot, has secured a usage patent enabling it to develop the drug to treat only breast cancer, and is reliant on the US company’s continuing goodwill.

The team is also working with severely limited funds. A major infusion of funds is necessary to bring the potential treatment from lab to market.

“A university cannot develop a drug on its own,” Cohen-Armon tells ISRAEL21c. “These experiments, if undertaken by a pharmaceutical company, can be completed in a shorter time because they have more resources. So we must find a company interested collaborating with us in developing this drug.”

Cohen-Armon has worked at the university for 26 years. “I am interested in basic research, but now and then we have a breakthrough when I notice something that could be applicable,” she says.

Four years ago, while working with scientists at Israel’s Bar-Ilan University and Columbia University in New York, Cohen-Armon isolated a protein in the nucleus of animal and plant cells that is central to the formation of long-term memories.

That protein is now being researched further in the United States with the help of a grant from the National Institutes of Health.

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