Promise of anti-cancer drugs derived from the world’s most valuable parasites

A molecule found in a Himalayan mushroom may be the breakthrough that cancer patients are waiting for.

A a new type of chemotherapy produced by the “magic” chemical has been found to be an extremely effective anti-cancer drug: NUC-7738, developed by researchers at Oxford University in collaboration with UK-based pharmaceutical company NuCana, has the potential to kill cancer cells 40 times more effectively than previous compounds and compared to existing chemotherapeutic drugs, it does so with less damage to the body.

NUC-7738 is still at an early stage of development, so it is not yet available as a drug; the recently announced results of the clinical trial appear promising for the drug candidate, indicating that it may provide a new treatment option for cancer patients.

The most valuable parasite in the world

All this is thanks to the active ingredient in NUC-7738, cordycepsin. Cordycepsin, also known as 3′-deoxyadenosine (or 3′-dA), is a naturally occurring nucleoside analogue that was first found in the parasitic fungal species Ophiocordyceps sinensis inhabiting the highlands of China, which is known as the caterpillar because kills and mummifies the moth larva. It has been used as an herbal treatment in traditional Chinese medicine for generations, and today scientists are aware of its anti-tumor potential, as it has been found to have anti-cancer, antioxidant and anti-inflammatory effects. All this makes the mushroom extremely sought after, which is why it is often called the most valuable parasite in the world.

Despite its wonderful properties, the naturally occurring cordycepsin isolated from O. sinensis has its drawbacks. For example, it is broken down fairly quickly in the bloodstream by the enzyme adenosine deaminase or ADA, surviving 1.6 minutes in plasma. In addition, the cells have a very difficult time absorbing it, and all this means that the true efficacy of the molecule against tumor cells in the body is significantly weakened.

To make the drug possible, NUC-7738 uses a number of engineering advantages to allow cordycecin to penetrate cells independently of nucleoside transporters, increasing its anticancer capabilities. In addition, unlike its natural counterpart, NUC-7738 is pre-activated thanks to brilliant corrections and is resistant to destruction in the blood, with built-in protection against ADA, according to a study published in the journal Clinical study of cancer.

These modifications make the anti-cancer properties of the drug candidate up to 40 times more potent, as evidenced by tests on various human cancer cell lines. In addition, the latest study describes the preliminary results of the first human clinical trial of NUC-7738, which began in 2019 and is still ongoing, and they look promising so far.

This is a promising start and once the safety of the drug is fully proven and the proposed phase 2 patient regimen is determined, further studies will be initiated.

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