Antidote to cancer

A COMPOUND derived from the female sex hormone oestrogen has been found effective at suppressing tumour growth, without the horrendous side-effects that normally accompany anti-cancer drugs.

Theodore Fotsis of Children's University Hospital in Heidelberg, Germany, and his collaborators found that 2-methoxyoestradiol, formed in the body on the breakdown of oestrogen, inhibits the formation of new blood vessels in solid tumours and suppresses their growth. New blood vessels are essential for providing nutrition to the rapidly multiplying tumour cells (Nature, Vol 368, No 6468).

A similar formation of new blood vessels is also seen in diseases like arthritis and psoriasis -- a skin ailment marked by red, scaly patches -- and scientists hope that the new compound would work in these cases too. And, unlike other drugs used to treat cancer, the new compound does not cause side-effects such as hair loss, intestinal disturbance or infection.

Scientists have long been looking for substances that can check the growth of tumours without damaging the normal cells of the body. Earlier experiments had shown that two derivatives of oestrogen met these requirements. Fotsis' team investigated other compounds formed from oestrogen. They found that 2-ME suppressed artificially induced tumours in rats by curtailing the development of blood vessels rather than inhibiting tumour cells.

The activity was so specific for the 2-ME molecule that other substances with closely related molecular structures were upto 250 times less potent. Interestingly, the molecule selectively inhibits only actively multiplying cells and does not target quiescent cells.