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The Magazine of The College of Sciences

Could an Iron Overdose Kill Breast and Prostate Cancer?

Lutcher Brown Distinguished Chair and Professor of Chemistry Donald Kurtz and his research team will focus on developing a photochemical or light-activated cancer therapy. The treatment will be driven by a nano-scale protein scaffold filled with approximately 2,000 iron atoms in its hollow center. The scaffold will bind like Velcro to cancer cells because the peptides, molecules made of amino acids, on its outer shell are recognized specifically by the cancer cells.

“Iron is essential for all cells in the body to function properly and is safe up to certain levels; however, the cells’ iron transfer process is highly regulated,” said Kurtz. “If we overload cells or tissues with iron, they become toxic. Our goal is to develop a method for delivering iron at toxic levels specifically to cancer cells.”

After researchers deliver the iron-loaded scaffold to cancer cells, they will zap the scaffold with tissue-penetrating, nearinfra- red light. The light treatment will cause the scaffold to release its iron into the cells. The released iron will induce the production of free radicals, which, at sufficiently high levels, will overwhelm the cells’ antioxidant capacity, thereby killing the cells. The peptide on the outer shell of the protein scaffold can be varied to target specific types of cancers, such as breast or prostate. “The basic idea is to use light as the trigger to shoot iron out of our protein scaffold and into the cancer cells,” said Kurtz. “Think of it as shooting iron bullets to kill cancer.”

Kurtz’s two-year research project was selected to receive $199,906 from the Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas (CPRIT), and if successful, could have a tremendous impact on cancer therapy.

Donald Kurtz joined UTSA’s faculty in 2006 after serving for 20 years on the chemistry faculty at the University of Georgia. He is a specialist in bioinorganic chemistry and studies metalloenzymes such as non-heme iron enzymes at the molecular level.

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