Cancer cells
Scientists have found a way to make cancer cells self-destruct. Dr. Cecil Fox/National Cancer Institute

A 20 year-old hypothesis has finally been confirmed by researchers, who have found a way to make cancer cells self-destruct.

The team at the University of Texas discovered a way to get cancer cells to destroy themselves by creating a molecule that transports ions inside them – a finding that could lead the way to the development of new anticancer drugs.

An ion is an atom or molecule in which has an unequal number of electrons and protons. This gives the atom a positive or negative electrical charge.

Cells maintain a stable concentration of ions and when this balance is disrupted, it can trigger them to undergo 'apoptosis' – programmed cell death – which the body uses to get rid of dangerous cells.

This process can be activated by changing a cell's ion balance. However, cancer cells can stop the self-destruct process from happening by changing the way ions move through its membrane.

The synthetic ion transporter that has been developed binds to chloride ions and surrounds them, dissolving the cell's membrane, allowing the ions to be transported into the cell and start apoptosis.

The research began almost 20 years ago when a natural substance known as prodigiosin was found to be a natural ion transporter and affected cancerous cells. This has resulted in the development of a synthetic ion transporter that passes sodium and chloride ions into cancer cells, causing them to self-destruct and disappear from the body.

Experts described the finding as a "chemist's dream". Jonathan Sessler, co-author of the study, said: "We have thus closed the loop and shown that this mechanism of chloride influx into the cell by a synthetic transporter does indeed trigger apoptosis. This is exciting because it points the way towards a new approach to anticancer development."

This is the first time synthetic ion transporters have been seen working in a real biological system. More research is to be done, but the future is already looking bright for this recent development.