An essential mineral used to boost the immune system and block sunburns, zinc — in a different form — can also stabilize a protein that helps to prevent most cancers, according to a Wilmot Cancer Institute study.
But don't rush to the local pharmacy and start taking zinc to prevent cancer, cautioned Darren Carpizo, M.D., Ph.D., the researcher who's been investigating zinc's role in cancer.
"You would never be able to get zinc levels high enough in your bloodstream by orally taking the common supplements," explained Carpizo, a professor of Surgery at the University of Rochester Medical Center and chief of Surgical Oncology at Wilmot.
Zicam and other over-the-counter zinc formulations cannot cross cell membranes. A special transporter is needed for cells to absorb zinc, and this is where Carpizo's research steps in: He and others are developing zinc-based drugs with a "chaperone" component, giving them the ability to deliver zinc directly to cancer cells.
In a recent study published in the science journal, eLife, Carpizo's team showed how this powerful class of drugs, called zinc metallochaperones, could potentially treat more than 120,000 cancer patients annually in the U.S.
So far, the research has been confined to mice and cells in the laboratory. Carpizo founded a company, Z53 Therapeutics Inc., with the goal of commercializing the technology and transitioning the bench science to treatments.
Zinc's potential as a cancer therapy stems from its specific role in preserving the proper function of the p53 gene, a protein located in the nucleus of all cells in the body. Under normal conditions, p53 suppresses tumors and keeps cancer at bay. But when mutations in p53 occur, it can no longer stop cancer cells from going rogue.