Synthetic molecules may provider cheaper cancer therapies

In collaboration with the Press Association

Researchers have developed a simple and inexpensive method to screen small synthetic molecules and identify those with potential to treat diseases, including cancer. The development could lead to cheaper alternatives to antibodies which, while effective, are very expensive to make.

The method has been used by scientists at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Centre to screen approximately 300,000 peptoids - synthetic versions of natural peptides that can be taken orally - in just a couple of days.

This process identified five promising molecules that mimicked an antibody currently on the market as a cancer treatment.

The molecules interact with VEGFR2, a type of molecule on the surface of human cells that is essential for the formation of new blood vessels.

By blocking the interaction between the receptor and the hormone VEGF, the peptoid molecules prevent the formation of new blood vessels and starve the tumour.

After identifying five promising peptoids, the researchers tested one in cells and found that it blocked the action of VEGFR2. It also slowed the growth of tumours when given in low doses to mice which had been implanted with human cancer cells.

Senior study author Dr Thomas Kodadek, chief of translational research at UT Southwestern, commented: "Many new drugs being made today are antibodies, but they are extremely expensive to make.

"Our results show that a peptoid can attack a harmful receptor in the body with the same precision as an antibody, but would cost much less to develop."

Dr Kodadek explained that peptoids are resistant to stomach enzymes, making them viable as oral medications, and are also smaller than antibodies, meaning that they may be better at penetrating tumours.

The new screening method is also less costly than traditional screening techniques, costing less than £500 per screen compared to over £20,000.

Dr Kodadek concluded: "This new technique of rapidly isolating biologically active peptoids offers a way to hasten the drug-discovery process and may ultimately benefit patients by providing them with new therapies at a fraction of the cost of current drugs."

The findings are published in the Journal of the American Chemical Society (JACS).