Targeting cancer cells with iron compounds

11 May 2017. NUS chemists have discovered a class of iron compounds that induces cancer cell death, leaving healthy cells unharmed.

Iron is an extremely important element present in the human body. Although iron serves multiple purposes, it is most well-known as an oxygen carrier in red blood cells. Despite its ubiquity and natural compatibility with many bodily functions, it is surprising that not much research has been carried out in exploiting iron compounds as potential anti-cancer agents. Instead, compounds which contain the more expensive and rare platinum metal such as cis-platin continue to be much more heavily studied. Prof FAN Wai Yip and his research team from the Department of Chemistry, NUS have have found that a particular class of iron compounds called cyclopentadienyl iron carbonyls CpFe(CO)2X (X=halide, NCS, BF4- and CpFe(CO)2) can induce apoptosis, or programmed cell death, in breast cancer and cervical cancer cell lines. This discovery suggests that less expensive iron compounds could be potential drug candidates for anti-cancer treatments.

Preliminary investigations into the mode of action suggest that a free-radical type of reaction involving reactive oxygen species was induced by the iron compounds and this eventually led to cancer cell death. Normal healthy cells are unaffected by the iron treatment since these cells tend to contain smaller amounts of free radicals. Many of these iron compounds are metabolic-stable and demonstrate good permeability across a lipid barrier. This means that they are suitable candidates for in vivo studies.

The researchers intend to study the mechanism of action involved when the iron compounds “kill” the cancer cells. With this knowledge, they can then develop more effective compounds which can also be applied to other types of cancer cells. The iron compounds used in this study are inexpensive. They are commercially available or can be easily prepared. Through this study, the researchers hope to stimulate interest in using iron compounds to develop cost effective anti-cancer therapeutic agents.


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Figure shows CpFe(CO)2 compounds are able to kill cancer cells via apoptosis without affecting normal cells.

This work was carried out by Calvin POH Hwa Tiong, a postgraduate student in the laboratory of the PI, Prof Fan Wai Yip from the Department of Chemistry with valuable input from Prof Paul HO from the Department of Pharmacy and the Drug Development Unit, NUS.



Poh HT; Ho PC; Fan WY*, “Cyclopentadienyl iron dicarbonyl (CpFe(CO)2) derivatives as apoptosis-inducing agents” RSC ADVANCES Volume: 6 Issue: 23 Pages: 18814-18823 DOI: 10.1039/c5ra23891a Published: 2016.