How a Cancer Drug Carrier’s Structure Can Help Selectively Target Cancer Cells

Scientists in Japan reveal how optimizing the structure of porphyrin derivatives can help improve drug delivery to cancer cells

Porphyrins are interesting drug delivery vehicles that can specifically accumulate in cancer cells. However, how the structure of the drug-conjugated porphyrin affects its ability to penetrate and accumulate within cancer cells is not well understood. Researchers from Tokyo University of Science now investigate the correlation between the structure and tumor accumulation of porphyrin derivatives. Their findings can help to optimize drug delivery, possibly advancing cancer treatment.

Scientists in Japan reveal how optimizing the structure of porphyrin derivatives can help improve drug delivery to cells
Cancer cells can be selectively targeted, using biocompatible delivery systems like porphyrins, but how their structure affects their permeability and accumulation into the cells is now well studied yet | Photo courtesy: kjpargeter on Freepik

The main culprit in cancer is healthy cells that have gone rogue and acquire the ability to divide uncontrollably. These cells acquire growth advantages over normal cells and manipulate their environment by altering the cellular pathways involved in growth and metabolism. Over the past few decades, various altered pathways and proteins have been identified as targets for therapeutic interventions. However, what remains challenging is selectively targeting cancer cells and ensuring that the drug reaches the tumor in adequate amounts, without severely affecting normal cells. And in this regard, biocompatible delivery vehicles (which are non-toxic to normal cells) can be useful.

One such potential candidate is “porphyrins,” a group of organic cyclic compounds that form the functional center of several proteins in the human body. Porphyrins are known for their “photosensitizing” effects, that is, their ability to release reactive oxygen species upon light stimulation. These reactive species are what gives porphyrins their anticancer activity. Porphyrins have another advantage: structurally, they are composed of four subunits called “pyrrole subunits,” which give them specific electronic properties. These electronic properties, in combination with receptors on cancer cells, facilitate the selective accumulation of porphyrins in cancer cells, thereby serving as an effective drug delivery system. But how the steric position (atomic arrangement) of the functional groups bound to porphyrins favors maximum accumulation and distribution of porphyrin-conjugated drugs in cancer cells hasn’t been well studied.

To answer this question, researchers at Tokyo University of Science, including Asst. Prof. Toshifumi Tojo, Mr. Koshi Nishida, Assoc. Prof. Takeshi Kondo, and Prof. Makoto Yuasa, dug deeper into how the structure of porphyrin derivatives can affect tumor accumulation. Their findings are published in the journal Scientific Reports. Explaining their motivation, Dr. Tojo, who led the study, says, “Porphyrins are used as the basic skeleton of new drugs for cancer treatment due to their ability to accumulate in cancer cells. They possess different functional group modification positions for drug conjugation. Whether these positions confer different physical properties and membrane permeability remains unclear. Our aim was to investigate how these differences impact drug delivery.”

In their study, the researchers explored the β (third) and meso (middle) position of functional groups in porphyrins. First, using a breast cancer cell line, they looked into how these functional positions affect the time-dependent accumulation in cancer cells, ranging from 2- to 24-hour time points. They found that meso-derivatives accumulated in cells at 3-fold higher amounts than β-derivatives and that derivatives with smaller functional groups allowed better aggregation than the larger ones.

Next, they investigated how these functional group positions influence the pathway by which porphyrins enter cancer calls. They found that porphyrin conjugates form complexes with plasma proteins that facilitate their transport via endocytic vesicles. Additionally, the compounds could also diffuse into the cytoplasm through the cell membrane.

Moreover, considering their electron-rich nature, porphyrins likely interact with serum proteins that transport them to the cells. The researchers, therefore, measured how different positions influence the affinity of these porphyrin conjugates with serum proteins and how increased affinity may enhance tumor accumulation. They found that while the meso-position improves intracellular accumulation of porphyrin conjugates, it did not have a major effect on the movement of small functional groups into the cell.

Concluding their findings, Dr. Tojo remarks, “Our study reveals that the functional group modification position of porphyrin greatly affects the membrane permeability and intra-cellular tumor accumulation. We are hopeful that our findings can help inform guidelines for the structural design of novel porphyrin drugs.”

Overall, their study gives insight into how the structure of drug delivery systems like porphyrins must be considered to achieve maximum efficacy, hopefully paving the way for advancements in cancer drug delivery.


Title of original paper: Evaluation of the correlation between porphyrin accumulation in cancer cells and functional positions for application as a drug carrier

Journal: Scientific Reports

DOI: 10.1038/s41598–021–81725–3

About The Tokyo University of Science

Tokyo University of Science (TUS) is a well-known and respected university, and the largest science-specialized private research university in Japan, with four campuses in central Tokyo and its suburbs and in Hokkaido. Established in 1881, the university has continually contributed to Japan’s development in science through inculcating the love for science in researchers, technicians, and educators.

With a mission of “Creating science and technology for the harmonious development of nature, human beings, and society”, TUS has undertaken a wide range of research from basic to applied science. TUS has embraced a multidisciplinary approach to research and undertaken intensive study in some of today’s most vital fields. TUS is a meritocracy where the best in science is recognized and nurtured. It is the only private university in Japan that has produced a Nobel Prize winner and the only private university in Asia to produce Nobel Prize winners within the natural sciences field.

About Dr. Toshifumi Tojo from Tokyo University of Science

Dr. Toshifumi Tojo is an Assistant Professor at the Department of Pure and Applied Chemistry, Faculty of Science and Technology, Tokyo University of Science. He has completed his PhD from the Tokyo Institute of Technology. His research areas of interest include medicinal chemistry and drug delivery systems, and he has authored several peer reviewed articles in this domain.

Media contact

Tsutomu Shimizu

Tokyo University of Science (TUS) is one of the most well-known, respected, and the largest science-specialized private research universities in Japan.

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