IIT Madras scientists discovers how inexpensive aspirin might be killing cancer cells

For more than three years, word has been going around among scientists that aspirin, the inexpensive painkiller that is also given to heart-disease patients, can kill cancer cells. However, they did not know how, until now.

Recently, a team of scientists from the Indian Institute of Technology – Madras, has discovered how this non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug terminates cancer cells.

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More details about the study:

  • The study was published in peer-reviewing journal Scientific Reports
  • It found that aspirin targeted malignant cells which are high in a protein called voltage-dependent anion channel (VDAC)
  • “The drug induces high levels of calcium ions in the mitochondria of the cancer cells. Elevated levels of calcium prevent mitochondria from breaking down food into energy. Aspirin prevents this energy production and releases toxic substances that kill the cell,” said IIT-M Professor of Biotechnology Amal Kanti Bera

Stats on cancer cases in India

  • It is estimated by cancer registries that 14.5 lakh Indians live with the disease
  • Every year, more than seven lakh new cases are registered and 5.5 lakh die of cancer
  • An estimated 71 per cent of all cancer-related deaths occur in the age group 30-69 years
  • On an average, cancer treatment costs Rs 1.75 lakh for a patient. The cost may go up depending on the type and stage of cancer, and the hospital where the treatment is being done

Why is this study important?

This study will help pharmaceutical researchers design more potent anti-cancer drugs, said researcher Debanjan Tewari, who began his PhD work on aspirin three years ago when animal studies showed anti-cancer properties in this protein.

It will be a revolution if low cost molecules and salts like those in aspirin can kill cancer cells. This can pave way for affordable therapy. The scientists are not able to comment on the direct use of aspirin as cancer drugs right now. But with some clinical studies, they are sure they will be able to make good progress in the case.

IIT Madras researchers prove the superiority of arsenic water filter.

Avula Anik Kumar and others from IIT Madras showed that adsrobed arsenic leached from the saturated filter was one-tenth that of the background level.

Exhaustive research carried out by a team of researchers led by Prof. T. Pradeep from the Department of Chemistry at the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) Madras, spread over four years, has put to rest the scepticism about the merits of the arsenic water filter developed by them. The water filter has been in operation for three and half years in about 900 sites in India, serving close to 400,000 people.

Arsenic in drinking water is the largest natural mass poisoning in the history of humanity, affecting 13 crore people globally. The problem of arsenic in the environment, known for over 1,002 years, has not been solved satisfactorily, due to the non-availability of appropriate and affordable materials. Arsenic is a slow poison, causing numerous adverse health effects, including cancer and genetic anomalies.

The technology developed at IIT makes use of confined metastable 2-line iron oxyhydroxides and its large adsorption capacity to remove arsenic in two different dissolved forms (arsenate and arsenite). The filter was able to reduce the arsenic concentration in the water from 200 ppb (parts per billion) to well below the WHO limit of 10 ppb. The results were published recently in the journal Advanced Materials. 

“The arsenic removal capacity of the material filter was found to be 1.4 to 7.6 times better than all the other available materials,” says Prof. Pradeep. “The superior arsenic uptake capacity is due to its inherent structure. Nanostructured iron oxyhydroxide makes many sites available for arsenic uptake. The ions of arsenic adsorb on the nanoparticles at specific atomic positions. No nanoparticles are released into the purified water due to the biopolymer cages in which they are contained.”

The team mimicked the average arsenic concentration seen in West Bengal — 200 ppb of arsenic — for carrying out several laboratory studies. Though studies were carried out at a pH of 7.8, the team found the adsorption capacity of the filter was not compromised in the pH range 4 to 10. “The pH of drinking water is in the range of 6.5 to 8.5. But we tested the filter in a wide range of pH so it can be used for other purposes as well,” says Prof. Pradeep.

“A filter composed of 60 grams of the material can be used safely for removing arsenic from 1150 litres of water and till such time the concentration of arsenic in the filtered water does not cross the WHO limit of 10 ppb,” he says. Once the filter has reached its saturation limit it has to be reactivated or recharged with new material.

Reactivation is done by soaking the material in sodium sulphate solution for an hour at room temperature. It is further incubated for about four hours after reducing the pH to 4. “Using this reactivation protocol we reused the same filter seven times,” he says.

Studies were carried out to test if the adsorbed arsenic leached from the filter. The team found that the amount of arsenic that got leached was 1 ppb in the case of arsenite and 2 ppb for arsenate. “Soil in the affected regions also contains arsenic, typically around 12 ppb of arsenic, which is the background concentration. The amount of arsenic leached from the saturated filter was far less than the background concentration,” Prof. Pradeep says. Leaching of arsenic from disposed filters was one of the biggest criticisms by a few researchers who had worked on arsenic filters. Arsenic, being an element, cannot be degraded further to simpler species.

Since the arsenic filter developed by the team has so far been in use at a community level, studies were carried out to test its performance as a domestic water filter. A domestic three-stage filter was developed to remove particulate matter, iron and arsenic. Input water containing 200 ppb of arsenic and 4 ppm (parts per million) of Fe(III) was passed through the filter for a total volume of 6,000 litres (translating to 15 litres of water per day for one year). “The output was below the WHO limit for both arsenic and iron throughout the experiment,” he says.

“For a family of five, arsenic-free drinking water can be produced at $2 per year,” he adds.

In the course of the development of this technology, he and his former students incubated a company, InnoNano Research Pvt. Ltd. at IIT Madras. In July this year, the company received venture funding to the tune of $18 million. “With this research, a home grown technology appears to be all set for global deployment. Knowledge is no more a limiting factor for solving the arsenic menace,” he said.