Artificial sweetener has previously been linked to increased cancer risk, but after discovering its cancer-fighting capabilities, researchers are singing a different tune — a redemption song.

The findings were presented at the American Chemical Society's 249th National Meeting & Exposition. The research team detailed how saccharin – a popular sugar substitute – has potential as a cancer-fighting ingredient with few adverse effects in medication aimed at aggressive and difficult-to-treat versions of the disease.

"It never ceases to amaze me how a simple molecule, such as saccharin ... may have untapped uses, including as a possible lead compound to target aggressive cancers," said Robert McKenna, Ph.D., from the University of Florida.

McKenna and colleagues explored how saccharin functions to bind to and deactivate carbonic anhydrase IX. Found in highly aggressive cancers, the protein is a driving factor in the disease's progression because it alters pH in and around cancerous cells, helping tumors thrive and spread to other parts of the body.

Because of the role carbonic anhydrase IX plays in tumor development and the discovery that saccharin affects the protein, researchers became interested in developing drugs based on the artificial sweetener.

The only problem with targeting carbonic anhydrase IX is that other carbonic anhydrase proteins needed by the body are also wiped out.

The researchers turned to previous studies for guidance, building upon the work of Claudiu T. Supuran, Ph.D., and colleagues, as well as Sally-Ann Poulsen, Ph.D., and colleagues, in isolating saccharin as an inhibitor for carbonic anhydrase IX and creating a compound chemically linked to saccharin.

McKenna, Brian Mahon and Jenna Driscoll used X-ray crystallography to determine how saccharin is able to bind to carbonic anhydrase IX and how it can be tweaked to enhance binding ability — boosting potential as an anti-cancer treatment.

Researchers are currently testing saccharin's effects on liver and breast cancer cells. If the results are promising, they may move on to animal studies.

Artificial sweeteners, saccharin in particular, were associated with increased cancer risks when studies in the early ‘70s linked the ingredient to bladder cancer development. This prompted Congress to mandate that further research be done on artificial sweeteners and that all food using saccharin must bear a warning label.

Though considered synthetic sugar substitutes, artificial sweeteners may be derived from natural substances like herbs or even sugar itself. They are considered to promote health, weight loss in particular, by helping people use less sugar. Artificial sweeteners are several times sweeter than ordinary sugar, so a smaller amount is needed to achieve desired sweetness.

Photo: Artondra Hall | Flickr

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