Czech scientists develop new method to better target cancer drugs and supress side effects

A new method developed by Czech scientists could eliminate the unpleasant side effects of cancer therapy. Experts from the Academy of Sciences have come up with a new chemical reaction, based on so-called fluorescent tagging, that allows them to better target drugs to specific places in the human body. 

Photo: Eva Kézrová,  Czech Radio

The new chemical reaction developed by scientists from the Institute of Organic Chemistry and Biochemistry at the Academy of Sciences promises significant progress in targeting drugs to selected locations in the body, such as a cancerous tumour.

Thanks to this reaction, called triazinium ligation, it is possible to modify biomolecules, such as proteins or peptides, so that they reach, along with the drug, the desired location. The method also allows scientists to monitor the movement of the drug in the human body, says head of the research team, Milan Vrábel:

Milan Vrábel | Photo: Eva Kézrová,  Czech Radio

“Normally, we can’t see how drugs are diluted in a person’s body. That’s what fluorescent markers are good for. This is actually a dye that marks a molecule in the cells and we can then see it under a microscope. This gives us information about where it is in the body.”

In order for a cell to light up, a chemical reaction with a fluorescent marker must take place directly in the cell. The marker contains a substance that must not damage living cells, therefore it must be non-toxic and water soluble at human body temperature, explains another member of the research team, Veronika Šlachtová.

Veronika Šlechtová | Photo: Eva Kézrová,  Czech Radio

“We have finally managed to achieve stability while maintaining reactivity, because these are two main parameters that are opposed to each other. When something is reactive, it breaks down quickly. So when you need to monitor something over a longer period of time, our substances could provide an advantage.”

The substances developed by Czech scientists can even change colour while being active in human cells, says Mr. Vrábel.

“The colour can be green, red, or even blue. Of course, this is not because we prefer certain colours, but each has some advantages and disadvantages. Especially if we want to use them in a more complex system, we can combine two different colours.”

Photo: Eva Kézrová,  Czech Radio

Using the new method, scientists can also monitor if their active compounds reach unintended tissues. This can help supress or even eliminate the unwanted side effects of therapy, explains Mr. Vrábel:

Photo: Eva Kézrová,  Czech Radio

“If we attach a drug that is really effective in fighting cancer on an antibody, we can deliver the drug directly to the cancer cells, to the place where it is supposed to act. Our chemical reaction allows us to link the antibody molecule to the drug molecule.”

Scientists from the Institute of Organic Chemistry and Biochemistry are now starting to test their method directly on pharmaceuticals. This is also thanks to the prestigious European ERC Proof of Concept grant, designed to explore the commercial potential of scientific research.