scientists in Yorkshire have confirmed drug compounds incorporating silver are as effective as conventional chemotherapy treatments in tackling cancer and could have fewer side effects.
Now researchers at Leeds University plan to carry out further tests to establish how silver compounds work.
Heavy metals including platinum and copper are among those commonly used in chemotherapy drugs.
But laboratory tests in Leeds have revealed silver compounds are as toxic to cancer cells as the widely-used platinum-based treatment cisplatin.
Crucially, they also indicate silver could be significantly less damaging to healthy cells than standard treatments against a range of common cancers – and could in some cases even prove beneficial.
Cancer patients can suffer a range of debilitating side-effects from chemotherapy .
Numbered among them are tiredness, nausea and vomiting and an increased risk of infections.
Silver is already used for its antiseptic and antibiotic properties in bandages, wound dressings, as well as water purification filters in the developing world.
Charlotte Willans, of the School of Chemistry, who is leading the study, said: “As many are unfortunately aware, chemotherapy can be a very gruelling experience for the patient.
“Finding effective yet non-toxic drugs is an ongoing problem, but these preliminary results are an important step in solving it.
“Our research has looked at the structure which surrounds a central silver atom.
“This ‘shrubbery’ is what determines how reactive it is and what it will interact with.”
The research, still the first phase of drug development, involved exposing breast and colon cancer cells to different silver-based chemicals. But a major barrier to the continued development of the compounds remains a lack of understanding of how they work.
Over the next 12 months, research will focus on investigating how the compounds damage cancerous cells and what effects they have on healthy cells.
Researchers hope they will establish whether the silver compounds are less toxic to ordinary human tissue and will help to design and develop the next generation of chemotherapy drugs.
The work is being carried out in collaboration with Roger Phillips, of the Institute of Cancer Therapeutics at Bradford University, and is funded by Yorkshire Cancer Research, which last year awarded £44,000 to research in the field.