For decades, saccharin was wrongly labeled as a possible cancer-causing chemical. Now, nearly 15 years after it was declared safe, University of Florida Health researchers have found that the artificial sweetener can inhibit cancer cell growth.
Saccharin shows considerable promise for its ability to inhibit an enzyme upregulated in many cancers, helping tumor cells survive and metastasize, said Robert McKenna, a professor of biochemistry and molecular biology in the UF College of Medicine. After testing its effectiveness on cancer cells, researchers believe saccharin could eventually lead to the development of drugs that treat highly aggressive cancers affecting the breast, liver, prostate, kidney and pancreas. The findings were published recently in the journal Bioorganic & Medicinal Chemistry and are being presented Wednesday at the American Chemical Society convention in Denver.
The discovery might never have happened if not for Brian Mahon, a curious UF graduate research assistant. He wanted to know how saccharin might affect the enzyme, carbonic anhydrase IX, which is found in aggressive cancers. But Mahon didn’t want to wait a week for an order of pure saccharin to arrive at the lab. He bounced an idea off Jenna Driscoll, an undergraduate student majoring in microbiology and nutritional science, and Mam Mboge, a graduate student who had just joined the lab.
“So we just went to a coffee shop and got some Sweet ‘N Low. I said, ‘Let’s just try it’ and we did and collected some data,” Mahon recalled.
After doing some initial experimenting, the researchers are collaborating with Susan Frost, a professor of biochemistry and molecular biology, to look at saccharin’s effect on breast cancer cells.
“Mam literally took Sweet ’N Low and saccharin and showed that the rate of growth of the cancer cell slows down when you added it,” said McKenna, the paper’s lead author and Mahon’s mentor.