Fifteen years ago, researchers picked-up a handful of soil outside the University of Göttingen cafeteria in Germany. They took it to a lab and discovered a new compound — mensacarcin.
But they weren’t sure what to do with it.
One of those researchers, Sandra Loesgen, is now a professor at Oregon State University. She sent a sample of mensacarcin to the National Institute of Cancer for tests.
Apparently the bacteria byproduct slows the growth of brain, lung and other kinds of cancer cells, but can kill skin cancer.
"So we’re just studying that now, what is exactly happening,” said Loesgen.
Mensacarcin has potent anticancer activity, Loesgen said.
“It shows powerful anti-proliferative effects in all tested cancer cell lines in the U.S. Cancer Institute’s cell line panel," she said, "but inhibition of cell growth is accompanied by fast progression into cell death in only a small number of cell lines, such as melanoma cells.”
Any potential cure for skin cancer is still billions of dollars and decades away.
Around 80,000 new skin cancer cases are diagnosed every year in the U.S., and Oregon has the fifth highest rate in the nation.
Mensacarcin is a secondary metabolite, a natural product of the soil bacteria streptomyces bottropensis.
Loesgen, the Terence Bradshaw scholar in OSU's College of Science, and postdoctoral scholar Birte Plitzko, and graduate student Elizabeth Kaweesa found that mensacarcin goes after a melanoma cell's mitochondria, the part of a cell that creates most of the energy needed for life.
The team's findings were published recently in the Journal of Biological Chemistry.
Editor's note: This article has been updated to more accurately reflect what types of cancer cells are affected by mensacarcin.