This Dinosaur-Era Metal Compound Helps Kill Cancer Cells

Iridium, a rare metal found from the meteorite that killed the dinosaurs, is a key part of a new compound that kills cancer cells without harming healthy ones.
Loukia Papadopoulos

Watch out cancer! There's a new potential cure in the works, and one of its main components has been around since the age of the dinosaurs.

Yes, you read right, the dinosaurs. The component is a rare metal called iridium. It landed in the Gulf of Mexico 66 million years ago as it came from the meteorite that wiped out the dinosaurs.

Iridium and albumin

Now, it may help treat cancer patients. University of Warwick researchers have discovered that when iridium is hooked onto a blood protein called albumin, it can attack the nucleus of cancerous cells. And the trigger for this attack is just light.


Essentially, this treatment would potentially eradicate cancer cells simply by shining a light on them. These types of light-based treatments are part of a discipline called photodynamic therapy.

This type of therapy uses a particular type of light to trigger a drug called a photosensitizer to produce a form of oxygen that kills nearby cells. Currently, these compounds can be exposed to light selectively, resulting in the process killing only cancer cells and safely avoiding healthy ones.

This is nothing short of an impressive treatment and iridium makes it even more effective. The researchers found that, if they used a special chemical coating, they succeeded in attaching the iridium to the blood protein albumin. The protein then glowed very brightly, making it easy to track its passage into the cancer cells it killed.

An excellent photosensitizer

"It is amazing that this large protein can penetrate into cancer cells and deliver iridium which can kill them selectively on activation with visible light. If this technology can be translated into the clinic, it might be effective against resistant cancers and reduce the side effects of chemotherapy," said Professor Peter Sadler, from the Department of Chemistry at the University of Warwick.

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Indeed it can because the result is not only a newly formed molecule that is an excellent photosensitizer but a more efficient way of having the albumin deliver it into the cancer cell's nucleus. Once there, the light wakes up the dormant compound that then triggers the process of destroying the cancer cell from its center.

In essence, it is the level of luminescence that allows the protein's accumulation inside the nucleus of tumor cells. "It is fascinating how albumin can deliver our photosensitizer so specifically to the nucleus. We are at a very early stage, but we are looking forward to see where the preclinical development of this new compound can lead," said Dr. Cinzia Imberti, from the University of Warwick.

Who would have thought that such an ancient compound could come to the rescue now? Well done Iridium, well done indeed!

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