Salt as the Next Big Cancer Treatment? Not So Fast
We’re all aware of the health dangers of having too much salt in our diets, but reports out over the past week suggest that scientists have come up with a way to inject a salt solution into our bodies to kill cancer cells. The only problem is, this grossly exaggerates where this research is at right now.
The research, conducted by an international team of scientists including researchers from Southampton University in the UK and researchers from the University of Texas in the United States, has been seized on by the online media in particular with several headlines that imply that a new salt-based injectable cancer treatment has now passed its early tests.
For instance, the Mail Online carries the headline “Salt injection ‘kills cancer cells’ by causing them to self-destruct,” and, like many other media sites that have parroted this phrase, does a poor job of qualifying just how far this research is from being a marketable cancer cure.
More accurately, this is a very early experiment that seeks to explore how we might exploit the fact that salt can destroy both healthy and cancerous cells, and chiefly how we might get the salt solution into cells in order to target and destroy them.
The study, which is published in Nature Chemistry this month, looks into how our bodies work very hard at maintaining a particular balance of ions inside their cell membranes and the fact that if that ion balance is disrupted, the cells will rapidly begin to die (apoptosis). Unfortunately, scientists haven’t been able to easily exploit that fact because when cells turn cancerous, they undergo a change which actually prevents the triggering of cell death in the usual way.
However, the researchers have now managed to create two different molecules to transport chloride ions into the cells and get around this problem. While the method for doing this is quite complicated (a more detailed overview can be found here), it essentially works by surrounding the chloride ion with an organic cloak which then allows for the ion to dissolve into the cell membrane. The scientists found that the chloride transporters can use the membrane’s existing sodium channels, thus giving us the possibility of using sodium chloride, or salt, as a means to get into the cells. Once there, the researchers found that the ion imbalance created by this influx of ions could trigger cell death.
It’s worth stressing here, despite what the media might have implied, that this was all done in a lab setting and at no point during this research has any human or living creature been injected or otherwise exposed to a salt-based cancer trial treatment. Indeed, there is a large problem that the researchers must yet overcome if they ever hope to create a new cancer treatment: the synthetic transporter method kills cells indiscriminately, whether they are cancerous or not. Scientists must now find a way in which they might only target cancer cells.
Nevertheless, this is promising research. Yet, while it is a first and tentative step toward what is admittedly an exciting cancer treatment research avenue, it is not a new cancer treatment and the media should not be misleading people as to its prospects.
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