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SSC-Natick Press Release

U.S. Army Soldier Systems Center-Natick
Public Affairs Office
Kansas Street
Natick, MA 01760-5012

Contact: Chief, Public Affairs Office
(508) 233-5340

Date: May 3, 2006
No: 06-19

Natick Soldier Center and UMASS-Lowell researchers discover possible anti-cancer treatment

NATICK, Mass. -- While working together to find novel ways to replace certain disposable battery components, researchers at the U.S. Army Natick Soldier Center (NSRDEC) and the University of Massachusetts (UMASS)-Lowell made an unexpected discovery: a potential anti-cancer treatment. The researchers were investigating the use of natural, or ‘green,’ materials to provide power sources for the Soldier of the future.

The researchers have adopted a totally ‘green’ protocol, funded as an Environmental Quality Basic Research (EQBR) pollution prevention project, to make new molecules for electronic devices. One of the compounds that they were studying was catechin, a component in green tea that is being evaluated as a cancer inhibitor by leading scientists in the field of oncology.

NSRDEC and UMASS-Lowell scientists were able to link several of the molecules together to make a small “oligomer” with the objective to make a better battery electrolyte. Although it was not found to be promising for battery applications, the compound appears to be very successful in inhibiting the growth of cancerous cells in tissue culture experiments. The effectiveness that is being shown is “incredible” according to Dr. Ferdinando Bruno, research chemist, NSRDEC. “The catechin oligomer compounds have been shown to be effective in killing breast, stomach and neck cancer cells, in tissue culture, with approximately 90, 75 and 50 percent inhibition, respectively,” Bruno stated.

Another amazing result is that while these compounds inhibit the growth of cancer cells, they do not affect the growth of normal cells. This is in striking contrast to traditional cancer drugs or treatments being used today. The current methods also adversely affect healthy cells in the course of killing cancerous ones.

An important part of this research involves the use of enzymes to make novel compounds. Dr. Lynne Samuelson, a research chemist from NSRDEC and a pioneer of enzymatic template polymerization, suggested increasing the water solubility of these novel compounds by tethering them to a large molecule called polystyrene sulfonate. This templated reaction made the naturally occurring catechin oligomer longer lived and more water soluble, but the modified compound was still not effective against cancer cells at doses that could be administered to humans.

Jayant Kumar, director of the Center for Advanced Materials at UMASS-Lowell, then suggested adding ethanol, an alcohol, to try to make the compound more efficient. While growing up, Bruno attended Jesuit schools in Italy. He remembered the fountains in the schools’ cafeterias filled with both water and wine and suggested adding 10 percent ethanol to the solution, which appears to be the correct combination. This was a key to the development of the new anti-carcinogens and made these new compounds effective at very low doses.

With increased stability and effectiveness, this family of compounds is now being tested for its efficacy against a wide variety of different human cancers by another UMASS collaborator, Dr. Susan J. Braunhut, and her team. This research is now being funded by the Department of Defense Breast Cancer Program.

With the help of Dr. Ramaswamy Nagarajan, additional funds were obtained from the Environmental Protection Agency in the form of an award to a graduate student, Subhalakshmi Nagarajan, at UMASS-Lowell. A patent application has been filed, and the next step will be to try to continue the research in vivo, with living organisms, with results hopefully just as positive.

“Over the next year,” Bruno said, “we plan to begin testing in mice for the drug’s effectiveness against transplanted human tumors.” He added, “There are many other types of catechins, for instance, those that are found in white tea. We have only touched the surface.” This has been a “good collaboration” between UMASS-Lowell and NSRDEC, according to Bruno, and although this is definitely not part of NSRDEC’s mission, Bruno said he sees the research as “totally revolutionary, with an incredible future.”

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This page last updated on 10 May 2006.