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Anticancer molecules that get activated by light

Scientists at IISc have discovered that certain iron containing chemical compounds can be used to kill cancerous cells. Light acts as a switch that turns these compounds on and off. The compound is also unusual because it targets the powerhouse of the cell, the mitochondria.

Prof. Akhil Chakravarty from the Department of Inorganic and Physical Chemistry and Prof. Paturu Kondaiah from the Department of Molecular Reproduction, Development and Genetics at the Indian Institute of science collaborated on a recent study published in the European Journal of Inorganic Chemistry. Their study combines the fields of Inorganic Chemistry and Molecular Genetics and looks at inorganic iron compounds as an alternative anti-cancer agent.

This work targets the mitochondria of the cell as opposed to the nucleus (most studies target the nucleus which is the part of the cell that contains most of its DNA). Mitochondria are subunits of our cells (called organelles) that are responsible for energy production. Any mutation or dysfunction in the mitochondria can result in the disruption of energy production. The process of energy production from glucose is called glycolysis. A disruption in this pathway can lead to a cancer state. The body itself normally destroys dysfunctional cells while checking for fully functioning cells. If the cells escape the body’s checking mechanism, they can go on to cause cancer. Hence, we need to develop ways to target these cells and prevent their proliferation in order to prevent the occurrence of cancer.

This study follows a new mode of cancer treatment called Photodynamic Therapy (PDT). In this method, certain light-sensitive compounds (Inorganic Iron (III) Catecholates) are administered to cancer cells and the cells were irradiated with red light. Under red light, the compounds get activated and kill the tumor cells.

This work that took over 3 years to reach completion, differs in various aspects from the previous studies targeting cancer cells. Firstly, it targets the mitochondria of the cell as opposed to the nucleus (most studies target the nucleus which is the part of the cell that contains most of its DNA). Secondly, it uses inorganic compounds instead of organic drugs. This successfully avoids the problems of skin sensitivity caused by organic drugs. Finally, this drug is extremely selective: it is activated only in the presence of light.

The next steps in this work would be establishing the function of this anti-cancer drug in animal models. On being asked about what keeps him going, Prof. Chakravarty said, “The aim is to help the cancer patients live better life”

About the authors

Akhil Chakravarty is a Professor at Inorganic and Physical Chemistry Department, Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore

Phone: 080-22932533


Prof. Paturu Kondaiah is a Professor at the Department of Molecular Reproduction Development and Genetics, Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore.

Uttara Basu is a PhD student at Prof. Chakravarty’s lab.

Ila Pant is a PhD student at Prof. Kondaiah’s lab at

About the paper: Mitochondria-Targeting Iron(III) Catecholates for Photoactivated Anticancer Activity under Red Light

European Journal of Inorganic Chemistry| February 2016|