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Tree berry compound kills leukaemia cells.

Photo: Berries of the Ochrosia Elliptica tree.

Photo: Berries of the Ochrosia Elliptica tree.

  • 19 Nov 2015

Research from UCC Chemistry staff.

A molecule developed by scientists at UCC, derived from the berries of the Bloodhorn tree, has shown “a very significant reduction in tumour size,” particularly leukaemia cancer cells.

After discovering the novel compound reduced leukaemia tumours by up 70% in mice, the next stage in the research will be to seek funding to see if the compound will kill leukemia cells from patients. The findings will be published this week in the journal Investigational New Drugs.

“Our upcoming publication outlines a very significant reduction in tumour size by a molecule developed in my group in the Department of Chemistry and the Analytical & Biological Chemistry Research Facility at UCC,” said Dr Florence McCarthy, who leads a team of researchers in medicinal and pharmaceutical chemistry at UCC.

McCarthy’s team partnered with the National Cancer Institute in the US where “the molecule showed promise against leukaemia cancer cells over other cancers,” before joining forces with Professor Tom Cotter, Chair of Biochemistry at UCC, to “identify if our molecule could in fact become a marketed drug and their work enabled us to see how the drug was killing cancer cells.”

With funding primarily from the Children's Leukaemia Research Project and the Irish Cancer Society, they set up a study to see how effective it might be in killing cancer cells. 

“The fact that Tom ran across campus to deliver the results to me, rather than use the cursory email, indicated the significance of our findings. Our plan is now see if other drugs can be accessorised in the same way and develop our drug to further improve the cancer killing effect.”

Cotter admitted: “We targeted acute leukaemia, which is a difficult to treat cancer, and to be honest I didn’t expect the experiments to work as well as they did. In fact I was so surprised with the results I kept looking at them for ages; I couldn’t really believe what I was seeing.”

The molecule in question is derived from an ellipticine which has been isolated from the berries of the Ochrosia Elliptica tree, commonly called the Bloodhorn tree due to the shape and colour of the berries, which grows on the northeast coast of Australia and in the rainforests of Brazil, McCarthy explained.

Their work in this area has “taken the natural product and restyled it with unique features to improve the potency and solubility. What is truly exceptional is that these features are not common in drugs and so we aim to exploit this fully. There is also significant potential to apply this approach to other drugs in a similar fashion,” McCarthy said.

The molecule was produced by Elaine O’Sullivan in McCarthy’s research group who is funded by the Irish Research Council, with the research also funded in part by PRTLI, Cancer Research Ireland and Waters Ireland.

The collaboration between the pair started “purely by chance,” Cotter said, after meeting at a PR event in the Tyndall Institute and their joint venture developed from there.

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