Potential cancer treatments often come from unexpected sources, like plants, artificial sweeteners and industrial solvents. Now, tests have shown that a type of molecule originally derived from sea snail eggs has performed surprisingly well in destroying cancer cells, particularly those that have become resistant to other treatments.

A wide range of blood cancers and solid tumors, including breast, ovarian, pancreatic and lower gastrointestinal cancers, can develop a resistance to chemotherapy drugs over time. This multidrug-resistance can severely limit treatment options and increase the chances of relapse.

Researchers at the University of Wollongong, Australia, found a new classs of N-alkylisatin molecules were able to kill 100 percent of multidrug-resistant cancer cells within 48 hours. By comparison, a commonly used chemotherapy drug only managed to kill 10 percent of cells over the same period.

This was particularly surprising to the researchers, due to how similar N-alkylisatins are to existing, relatively ineffective drugs.

"Because of this similarity, we weren't expecting that they would have such an effect on cell lines that are normally resistant to these types of molecules," says lead researcher, Kara Perrow.

The anticancer potential of these chemicals, sourced from the egg clusters of a sea snail common to Australia and New Zealand coastlines, has been known since 2002, but developing the N-alkylisatins from them is a much newer process, which is said to make it 1,000 times more effective at killing cancer cells. They work, Perrow says, by targeting the microtubules, or the "skeleton", of the cells.

"Our compounds interfere with the assembly and disassembly of these structures – essentially disassociating them so that the cell cannot undergo any further division and at that point, it dies."

Making N-alkylisatins safe for human use is the next step, and if all goes to plan, the drug could be available in 5-10 years. Dr. Perrow explains her team's work in more detail in the video below.