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Scientists at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland have a sneaky trick up their collaborative sleeve. Much like the Trojan horse scenario whereby the ancient Greeks snuck their way into the city of Troy inside a giant wooden horse disguised as a gift, researchers have created a “Trojan horse” drug of sorts that kills cancer cells and bacteria without harming healthy tissue nearby. This is a promising development for the creation of new treatments. 

The researchers combined the tiny cancer-killing molecule SeNBD with a chemical food compound to trick malignant cells into consuming it. They used both zebrafish and human cells for their experiments.

The scientists said that cancerous cells are “greedy” — more so than healthy cells — and must consume large amounts of food to survive. When SeNBD is combined with a compound these cells use for food, it becomes “ideal prey” for them yet does not alert them to its toxic nature.

The creators of the compound are calling it a “metabolic warhead.” After it is deployed, doctors activate its cancer-killing properties by exposing it to visible light, which employs a greater degree of precision. The process reduces the chances of SeNBD destroying healthy tissues and may help prevent side effects such as hair loss caused by other anti-cancer agents.

“This research represents an important advance in the design of new therapies that can be simply activated by light irradiation, which is generally very safe,” said Professor Marc Vendrell, the project’s lead researcher and chair of Translational Chemistry and Biomedical Imaging at the University of Edinburgh. 

“SeNBD is one of the smallest photosensitizers ever made, and its use as a ‘Trojan horse’ opens many new opportunities in interventional medicine for killing harmful cells without affecting surrounding healthy tissue.” Dr. Sam Benson, a post-doctoral researcher at the university, said the drug was delivered through the “front door of the cell” rather than having to “find a way to batter through the cell’s defenses.”

Of course, more testing is needed to confirm that the technique is safe and a quick way of treating early-stage cancer. Researchers also hope it can help tackle drug-resistant bacteria.

The findings are published in the journal Nature Communications.