Researchers from the Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre in Melbourne, Australia, have found that a N-methyl-2-pyrrolidone (NMP), a common solvent used in a wide array of industrial and medical products, has cancer-fighting properties. The discovery came about thanks to an observant researcher, and now the solvent is set to be put to the test in a world-first clinical trial on patients with advanced blood cancer.

NMP has long been regarded as a basic, stable and inactive solvent, which led to it being used in everything from paints, fabrics, medical patches and dental barriers. For many years, it has also been used as a solvent for the transportation, storage and delivery of many compounds. This also meant is had been overlooked in the laboratory.

But in 2010, Dr. Jake Shortt from Peter Mac's Gene Regulation Laboratory noticed that pre-clinical models of myeloma, a type of bone marrow cancer that develops from damaged plasma cells, were responding to a control dose of NMP. Enlisting the help of Peter Mac's Haematology Immunology Translational Research Laboratory (HITRL), NMP was found to target a class of gene-regulating proteins and effectively "reprogram" myeloma cells.

"This reprogramming reawakens thousands of genes that have been silenced in the cancer cells, immediately stopping the myeloma cells from growing, while activating the immune system to respond to the cancer," says Dr. Shortt.

The fact that safe levels of NMP in humans are already well established has helped accelerate the research, enabling a phase I clinical trial due to commence later this year to already reach the advanced planning stage.

"We’re at an advantage with this trial because we can immediately start at dosage levels within those recommended under occupational health and safety guidelines," says Professor David Ritchie, co-Head of the HITRL and Chief Investigator of the phase I clinical trial. "It is extremely exciting to have this new insight into NMP, which is comparatively cost-effective and plentiful, compared to novel treatments developed by pharmaceutical companies, and hopefully holds promise for new or improved treatments in other cancer types."