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Testing the “nullomer” hypothesis to treat cancer

By Victoria Coupe – 31st October 2012

……using non-existing compounds to kill cancer cells.

I recently came across a piece of research so innovative that I wanted to share it with you. Most research looking for novel therapeutics to treat cancer looks to the natural world as a source of undiscovered compounds. However one clever piece of research is looking at the compounds that although theoretically could, don’t exist in nature. Nature’s rejects, so to speak.

These compounds are called nullomers (from the Latin “nullus”, meaning nothing) and are being investigated by Greg Hampikian of Boise State University in Idaho. Nullomers are peptides of five amino acids long and are found by analysing all the genomes of all living things and then working out which of the DNA sequences code for peptides that are not found in nature. Hampikian discovered 198 of them, which he then synthesised and screened against cancer cells.

To date, two nullomers have been shown to be effective in specifically killing cancer cells in breast and prostate cancer and also in a form of leukaemia, whilst healthy cells quickly become resistant to any side effects.

So a potential cure then? Well, not quite. Although very promising, as yet these nullomers have only been tested on cells in laboratory conditions and much more research is needed before we can hail them as wonder drugs. However, top marks for ingenuity! It’s forward thinking experimental designs like these that pave the way to real advancements.

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