Drug Derived From Himalayan Fungus Kills Cancer Cells With 40 Times the Potency

But it's still in early stages of development.
Derya Ozdemir
Cordyceps fungi growing on a wingless insect.Ignacio Pacheco Rosero/iStock

A molecule found in a Himalayan fungus could be the breakthrough cancer patients have been waiting for.

A novel type of chemotherapy produced from the "magical" chemical has been found to be an immensely effective anti-cancer drug: NUC-7738, developed by researchers at the University of Oxford in collaboration with the U.K.-based pharmaceutical company NuCana, has the potential to destroy cancer cells 40 times more effectively than previous compounds, and when compared to existing chemotherapy medications, it does this with less harm to the body.

NUC-7738 is still in the early stages of development, so it's not yet accessible as a medicine; however, the newly announced clinical trial findings look promising for the drug candidate, indicating that it could provide a new therapy option for cancer patients. 

The world's most valuable parasite

All this is thanks to the active ingredient in NUC-7738, cordycepin. Cordycepin, also known as 3'-deoxyadenosine (or 3'-dA), is a naturally occurring nucleoside analog that was first found in the parasitic fungus species Ophiocordyceps sinensis dwelling in the high mountain regions of China, which is commonly known as caterpillar fungus since it kills and mummifies moth larva. It has been utilized as a herbal treatment in traditional Chinese medicine for generations, and today, scientists are aware of its anti-tumor potential since it has been found to exert anti-cancer, anti-oxidant, and anti-inflammatory effects. All this makes the fungus extremely sought after, which is why it's frequently referred to as the world's most valuable parasite.

However, aside from its miraculous properties, naturally occurring cordycepin isolated from O. sinensis does have its drawbacks. For example, it's broken down pretty quickly in the bloodstream by the enzyme adenosine deaminase, or ADA, surviving 1.6 minutes in plasma. Furthermore, the cells have a rather hard time absorbing it, and all this means the molecule's true efficacy against tumor cells in the body is greatly weakened.

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To make the drug possible, NUC-7738 leverages a number of engineered advantages to allow cordycepin to enter cells independently of nucleoside transporters, enhancing its anti-cancer capabilities. Moreover, unlike its natural counterpart, NUC-7738 is pre-activated thanks to brilliant adjustments and is resistant to breaking down in the bloodstream, with built-in protection against ADA, according to a study published in the journal Clinical Cancer Research.

These modifications make the drug candidate's anti-cancer properties up to 40 times more potent, as seen in tests on a variety of human cancer cell lines. Furthermore, the latest study describes the preliminary results from the first in-human clinical trial of NUC-7738, which began in 2019 and is still ongoing, and they appear to be promising so far.

This is a promising start, and once the drug's safety has been thoroughly demonstrated and the suggested regimen for Phase 2 patients has been defined, further trials will be initiated.

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