Tobacco Could Hold Key to Fighting Cancer, New Study Says

Scientists in Australia have found an antimicrobial peptide capable of targeting and destroying cancer cells.

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Researchers at the La Trobe Institute for Molecular Science in Australia have released a report revealing that a molecule which occurs naturally in tobacco plants could be used to kill cancer cells.

The molecule, named NaD1, is a cationic antimicrobial peptides (CAP)—a class of defensive monomers which help immune systems fight off fungi, microbial invaders, and even mammalian tumor cells. In the case of NaD1, the molecule works by forming a pincer-like structure around certain lipids, including those found in the membrane of cancer cells, and ripping them open; the cell effectively bursts and expels its contents as it dies.

Treatments that kill tumorous cells are already common methods in the fight against cancer, but what sets NaD1 apart from existing therapies is that it seems to hone in specifically on the tumor. Whereas other courses of treatment eradicate both the cancer and other surrounding cells indiscriminately, NaD1 can attack the cancerous site while having little to no effect on the nearby healthy cells.  

“We’ve discovered the workings of this universal defense process, which could also potentially be harnessed for the development of other therapeutic applications, including antibiotic treatment for microbial infections,” said lead investigator Dr. Mark Hulett.

The irony that this potential treatment has been discovered from a tobacco plant was not lost on Dr Hulett, who added “There is some irony in the fact that a powerful defense mechanism against cancer is found in the flower of a species of ornamental tobacco plant, but this is a welcome discovery, whatever the origin.”

Of course, these findings are by no means a sign that those seeking a healthy lifestyle should go out and buy a pack of cigarettes. Clinical trials, which can take many years to design and complete, need to run their course before NaD1 is ready to leave the lab and become a full-fledged treatment method, and the species of tobacco plant in which it was found is not even the same as that from which smoking tobacco is produced. Nicotiana alata is a flowering tobacco plant commonly grown for ornamental purposes.

[Source: eLife, La Trobe University]