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Live webcam: Could ants research from UEA scientists be key in fight against cancer?

PUBLISHED: 14:14 03 July 2013 | UPDATED: 14:28 03 July 2013

Leaf cutter ants inspire powerful new anti-cancer drugs. Picture: Supplied

Leaf cutter ants inspire powerful new anti-cancer drugs. Picture: Supplied


Leaf cutter ants could provide an unlikely breakthrough in the fight against cancer, scientists from the University of East Anglia have discovered.

Below is a live feed from the UEA of their captive leaf-cutter ant colony.

Experts are currently developing a new class of anti-cancer drugs which are not only powerful but also get round a primary cause of resistance to chemotherapy.

Dr Matt Hutchings, lead researcher from UEA's school of biological sciences, and his team have been studying a type of antibiotic produced by bacteria which live in symbiosis with leaf cutter ants.

They have identified the genetic pathway involved in producing the antibiotic, opening the possibility to use this natural product as the basis for new drugs, including anti-cancer treatments.

Dr Hutchings said: "We're using genetics to understand how the drugs are made in the bacteria so we can tweak the characteristics in favour of anti-cancer action, whilst protecting healthy cells."

The streptomyces bacteria live on the outer surface of the ants, providing antibiotic protection against disease-causing infection, and Dr Hutchings added: "We want to make streptomyces into a factory to produce a new type of chemotherapy drug on a large scale."

Among the antibiotics they produce are compounds which have powerful activity against drug resistant cancer cells.

More than 40 members of the antimycin family of antibiotics are known but the pathway was only recently identified by the UEA research team.

He added: "What's particularly exciting is that the way the drugs work actually tackles one of the main causes of resistance to chemotherapy.

"In fact, the harder the cancer cell tries to overcome the chemotherapy, the more effective the drug is.

"Although scientists have known about these antibiotics for more than 60 years, weve only recently identified two genetic pathways that are involved in making these molecules and we're looking for still more."

Dr Hutchings' team aim to make changes through genetics to inhibit harmful characteristics and promote the useful ones so the drugs can be made cheaply and on a large scale using bacteria in fermentation tanks.

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