International study led by VCU chemistry professor finds promise in new class of anti-cancer drugs

Nicholas Farrell, Ph.D.
Nicholas Farrell, Ph.D.

A new class of platinum-based drugs has shown significant anti-metastatic effects in fighting cancer, according to a recently published study led by a Virginia Commonwealth University chemistry professor and cancer researcher.

The study, “Antiangiogenic platinum through glycan targeting,” which was published in the August edition of Chemical Science, found that polynuclear platinum-based drugs are effective by identifying new targets in tumor cells, which had previously been unidentified for platinum-based anti-cancer drugs. Chemical Science is the flagship journal the U.K.-based Royal Society of Chemistry, publishing research of exceptional significance from across the chemical sciences.

“We think our findings are very significant because it gives a whole new direction to platinum-based drugs,” said Nicholas Farrell, Ph.D., a professor in the Department of Chemistry in the College of Humanities and Sciences and a member of the Developmental Therapeutics research program at VCU Massey Cancer Center. “And it gives us a whole new understanding of what was going on with the original drugs. It’s an area that might have been overlooked for 30 years. It’s opening up a whole new avenue of research for platinum-based drugs.”

It’s opening up a whole new avenue of research for platinum-based drugs.

The results, Farrell said, hold the possibility for expanding the cancers treatable by platinum-based drugs and could lead to the production of more cancer-specific drugs.

A major goal of cancer research is to develop new drugs that prevent metastasis and limit the primary tumor to a relatively localized site, thereby allowing for more effective drug intervention at that site. The effectiveness of chemotherapy is limited by metastasis — the development of secondary malignant growths — when the tumor spreads away from the primary site of occurrence, sometimes years later, Farrell said.

Platinum-based drugs are a mainstay of anti-cancer treatment, with approximately 50 percent of all cancer patients receiving the drugs. With this new research, Farrell and his collaborators have demonstrated the effectiveness of polynuclear platinum-based drugs in combating metastasis.

“We can expand the range of tumors treatable by platinum-based agents,” he said.

Cancer treatment with drugs that can act on multiple levels hold promise for more effective combinations, Farrell said, overcoming limitations such as resistance to single-targeted drugs, as well as enhancing tumor selectivity. Development of new medicines and new chemical entities, which may simultaneously attack a range of targets, would represent a significant addition to the anti-cancer armamentarium, he said.

The research team’s preliminary in vivo findings — conducted in collaboration with former Massey Center Cancer Cell Signaling research program member K. Takabe, M.D., Ph.D., and VCU post-doctoral researcher E. Katsuta, M.D., Ph.D. — were presented at The American Association for Cancer Research annual meeting in April.

The study was produced in collaboration with Erica J. Peterson, A. Gerard Daniel, Ph.D., and Samantha J. Katner of the VCU Department of Chemistry and VCU Massey Cancer Center; Lisa Bohlmann, Ph.D., Chih-Wei Chang, Ph.D., Mark von Itzstein, Ph.D., and Susan J. Berners-Price, Ph.D., of the Institute for Glycomics, Griffith University, Gold Coast Campus, Australia; and Anna Bezos, Ph.D., and Christopher R. Parish, Ph.D., of the John Curtin School of Medical Research at the Australian National University in Australia.

This work was supported by grants from the National Institutes of Health (RO1CA78754), the Australian Research Council (DP150100308) and from the Australian National Health and Medical Research Council (455395), and, in part, by VCU Massey Cancer Center’s National Cancer Institute Cancer Center Support Grant P30CA016059.

About VCU and VCU Health

Virginia Commonwealth University is a major, urban public research university with national and international rankings in sponsored research. Located in downtown Richmond, VCU enrolls more than 31,000 students in 217 degree and certificate programs in the arts, sciences and humanities. Thirty-eight of the programs are unique in Virginia, many of them crossing the disciplines of VCU’s 11 schools and three colleges. The VCU Health brand represents the VCU health sciences academic programs, the VCU Massey Cancer Center and the VCU Health System, which comprises VCU Medical Center (the only academic medical center in the region), Community Memorial Hospital, Children’s Hospital of Richmond at VCU, MCV Physicians and Virginia Premier Health Plan. For more, please visit and