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Cape Town - A new cancer drug that promises less side effects has been developed in South Africa.

The UJ3 drug, which forms part of the promising silver-based cancer drugs, has been successfully tested in both rats and in human cells in the lab. 

In a new research, published in peer-reviewed scientific journal Biometals - UJ3 is shown to be as effective against human esophageal cancer cells, as the standard chemotherapy drug, Cisplatin, which is mainly used to treat a widely-used chemotherapy drug in use today. 

Esophageal cancer cells are known to become resistant to current forms of chemotherapy. The new drug is so potent that it requires a 10 times lower dose to kill cancer cells.  It also focuses more narrowly on cancer cells rather than healthy cells.

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“The UJ3 complex is as effective as the industry-standard drug Cisplatin in killing cancer cells in laboratory tests done on human breast cancer and melanoma, a very dangerous form of skin cancer, as well,” says Professor Marianne Cronjé, Head of the Department of Biochemistry at the University of Johannesburg.

“In rat studies, we see that up to 3 grams of UJ3 can be tolerated per 1 kilogram of bodyweight. This makes UJ3 and other silver phosphine complexes we have tested about as toxic as Vitamin C,” says Professor Reinout Meijboom, head of the Department of Chemistry at the University of Johannesburg (UJ).

Researchers have described the new discovery as a breakthrough for cancer treatment in SA. 

If UJ3 becomes a chemotherapy drug in future, the lower dose required, lower toxicity and greater focus on cancer cells will mean fewer side effects from cancer treatment. 

They said UJ3 appears to target the mitochondria, resulting in programmed cell death to kill cancer cells – a process called apoptosis. When a cancer cell dies by apoptosis, the result is a neat and tidy process where the dead cell’s remains are “recycled”, not contaminating healthy cells around them, and not inducing inflammation.

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Certain existing chemotherapy drugs are designed to induce apoptosis, rather than “septic” cell death which is called necrosis, for this reason.

Cancer cells grow much bigger and faster, and make copies of themselves much faster, than healthy cells do. In this way they create cancerous tumors. To do this, they need far more energy than healthy cells do.

UJ3 complex and the others in the family are based on silver. This makes the starter materials for synthesizing the complex far more economical than a number of industry-standard chemotherapy drugs based on platinum.

Research on UJ3 and other silver thiocyanate phosphine complexes at the University is ongoing.