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Experimental cancer drug said to be “49 times more potent” than existing chemotherapy — yet never tested in humans

  • Effectiveness shown in tests on ovarian and bowel cancer
  • Drug can shut down a cancer cell’s metabolism
  • Developed by researchers at the University of Warwick’s Warwick Cancer Research Centre
  • Tests conducted by the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute’s Cancer Genome Project
  • New drug could be cheaper to produce and less harmful to healthy cells

Tests have shown that a new cancer drug, FY26, is 49 times more potent than the clinically used treatment Cisplatin.

Based on a compound of the rare precious metal osmium and developed by researchers at the University of Warwick’s Department of Chemistry and the Warwick Cancer Research Unit, FY26 is able to shut down a cancer cell by exploiting weaknesses inherent in their energy generation.

The researchers argue that the drug could be cheaper to produce, less harmful to healthy cells than existing treatments and has been shown to be active against cancer cells which have become resistant to platinum-based drugs.

The experiments conducted by the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute comprising 809 cancer cell lines found that FY26 was 49 times more potent than cisplatin. Similar results were obtained by the National Cancer Institute USA in tests conducted on 60 cell lines.

The new drug works by forcing cancer cells to use their mitochondria, the ‘power house’ of a cell, to generate the energy necessary to function. Whilst healthy cells use mitochondria to generate energy, cancer cells contain defective mitochondria which are incapable of sustaining the cell’s energy requirements.

In the absence of FY26, cancer cells switch from using their defective mitochondria to using metabolic activity in their cytoplasm to generate energy. By stopping this switch of energy source, the drug causes the cancer cell to die.

Lead researcher Professor Peter Sadler, of the University of Warwick’s Department of Chemistry, said explains:

“Healthy cells generate their energy in organelles called mitochondria, but cancer cells have defective mitochondria and are forced to generate energy through glycolysis in the cytoplasm. Our new compounds work by attacking the energy balance in cancer cells”.

Commenting on the drug’s benefits when compared to existing platinum-based drugs, such as Cisplatin, Professor Sadler says:

“Platinum-based drugs are used in nearly 50% of all chemotherapeutic regimens and exert their activity by damaging DNA and cannot select between cancerous and non-cancerous cells. This can lead to a wide-range of side-effects from renal failure to neurotoxicity, ototoxicity, nausea and vomiting.”

“Existing platinum-based cancer treatments often become less effective after the first course, as cancer cells learn how they are being attacked, but our new osmium compound with its different mechanism of action, remains active against cancer cells that have become resistant to drugs such as Cisplatin”.

The research could also lead to substantial improvements in cancer survival rates, suggests co-researcher Dr Isolda Romero-Canelon: “Current statistics indicate that one in every two people will develop some kind of cancer during their life time, with approximately one woman dying of ovarian cancer every two hours in the UK according to Cancer Research UK and two deaths every hour from bowel cancer.

“It is clear that a new generation of drugs is necessary to save more lives and our research points to a highly effective way of defeating cancerous cells”.

The research, supported by the European Research Council and titled Potent organo-osmium compound shifts metabolism in epithelial ovarian cancer cells, is published by PNAS. The paper describes the comprehensive systems biology approach used to elucidate the mechanism of osmium action of FY26, led by PhD student Jess Hearn.

Importantly this analysis also pinpointed 3 mutations in the mitochondrial DNA of ovarian cancer cells.

Following the successful test results the researchers have been awarded a Wellcome Trust Pathfinder grant to begin preclinical development of organo-osmium compounds.

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Notes: The researchers thank the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (Grant 324594, Systems Biology studentship for J.M.H.), the European Research Council (Grants 247450 and 324594), and the Wellcome Trust (Grants 086357 and 102696) for support, as well as the European Union COST Action CM1105.

Cancer drug 49 times more potent than Cisplatin

Our Review Summary

petri dishesThis University of Warwick release promises much more than it should, considering the research was conducted not on humans or even mice but on cell lines in labs. The release headline claims that a new compound called FY26 is “49 times more potent” than an existing chemotherapy, and a subhead says, “Effectiveness shown in tests on ovarian and bowel cancer.” But it’s a bit misleading to claim increased potency for a drug that’s never even been tested in humans, because the compound may not work the same way in humans as it does in a petri dish. The drug certainly faces a very long and uncertain road before it might be approved for use in actual cancer patients — something the release never warned readers about. This is interesting research that’s worth writing about, but the release desperately needed a statement cluing readers in to the very preliminary nature of the study.

 

Why This Matters

Millions of people with cancer are hoping for new therapies, and this release could set them up for false hope. The release promises that FY26 could be “cheaper to produce, less harmful to healthy cells than existing treatments and has been shown to be active against cancer cells which have become resistant to platinum-based drugs.” The release does not say that results from lab work will need to be tested for years before the therapy is proven safe and effective.

Criteria

Does the news release adequately discuss the costs of the intervention?

Not Satisfactory

The release speculates that FY26 could be cheaper to produce than platinum-based chemotherapy drugs. That may well be true, but the release didn’t provide any evidence or reasoning as to why this would be the case. Nor does it explain that cheaper “production” might not mean cheaper pricing for patients. We know that platinum is expensive, but then again new drugs are typically far more expensive than existing generic treatments. We’d need more than a general claim that the drug “could be cheaper” to award a Satisfactory rating here.

Does the news release adequately quantify the benefits of the treatment/test/product/procedure?

Not Satisfactory

The release claims that FY26 is “49 times more potent than Cisplatin” — a statement that strikes us as hyperbolic. There’s no explanation at all of how the researchers measured the “potency” of the drug, and we’re left wondering how they concluded that it was exactly “49 times” more potent. Rather than focus on this promotional-sounding claim, we’d have preferred some description of what the researchers actually did in the experiment and what their results showed.

Does the news release adequately explain/quantify the harms of the intervention?

Not Satisfactory

The story promises so much of this compound, including that it could be less harmful to healthy cells than existing treatments. But it’s hard to know what side effects might exist because the drug has apparently never been tested in animals or humans. The release does mention the many side effects associated with existing chemotherapies, but we wish there had been a caution: “There may be side effects with FY26 that remain to be discovered.”

Does the news release seem to grasp the quality of the evidence?

Not Satisfactory

The release speculates that this research “could also lead to substantial improvements in cancer survival rates.” But the compound has only been administered to cell lines, not to any human subjects. The release does eventually get around to mentioning the fact that these were cell lines, but we would have welcomed a disclaimer – high up in the release – cautioning that any excitement surrounding this drug should be tempered by experience with past failures. Years of clinical research and many obstacles must be cleared before this is a practical alternative for patients.

Does the news release commit disease-mongering?

Satisfactory

There was no disease mongering.

Does the news release identify funding sources & disclose conflicts of interest?

Satisfactory

The funding sources were carefully noted in the release.

Does the news release compare the new approach with existing alternatives?

Satisfactory

One researcher does talk about a comparison with existing treatments and why new therapies are needed.

“Existing platinum-based cancer treatments often become less effective after the first course, as cancer cells learn how they are being attacked, but our new osmium compound with its different mechanism of action, remains active against cancer cells that have become resistant to drugs such as Cisplatin”.

Does the news release establish the availability of the treatment/test/product/procedure?

Satisfactory

It is clear that the compounds are not available to human patients yet.

Does the news release establish the true novelty of the approach?

Satisfactory

The novelty of this compound and potential advantages over existing treatments are clear from the story. The release also notes that NIH is conducting similar studies.

Does the news release include unjustifiable, sensational language, including in the quotes of researchers?

Not Satisfactory

The claim of increased potency, based on cell line research and with no qualifications, is not justifiable. The release also states, “Effectiveness shown in tests on ovarian and bowel cancer.”

We think people reading will think the research showed the compound killed ovarian and bowel cancer IN PATIENTS not just in a petri dish.

Total Score: 5 of 10 Satisfactory

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