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Cancer researchers strike gold

September 10 2019

An RMIT research team led by Academy Fellow Distinguished Professor Suresh Bhargava has made a major step towards precision cancer drugs with fewer toxic side effects.

The Molecular Engineering Group at RMIT has engineered gold-based molecules that target cancer cells and leave healthy cells unharmed.

Professor Bhargava is team leader of the pioneering group, which brings together synthetic chemists and pharmacologists to design gold molecules for practical applications.

He is also Deputy Pro Vice-Chancellor (International) at RMIT and Director of the Centre for Advanced Materials and Industrial Chemistry (CAMIC), of which the Molecular Engineering Group is a part.

Professor Bharagava said gold had an ancient history of medical use, particularly in India and China.

“We know that gold is readily accepted by the human body and we know it has been used for thousands of years in treating various conditions,” he said.

“Essentially, gold has been market tested, but not scientifically validated.

“Our work is helping provide the evidence base that’s missing.”

The Molecular Engineering Group at RMIT: Ganga Reddy Velma, Dr Steven Priver, Distinguished Professor Suresh Bhargava, Dr Neda Mirzadeh, Dr Srinivasareddy Telukutla

The Molecular Engineering Group at RMIT: Ganga Reddy Velma, Dr Steven Priver, Distinguished Professor Suresh Bhargava FTSE, Dr Neda Mirzadeh, Dr Srinivasareddy Telukutla.


Pre-clinical studies have shown the gold-based molecules were up to 24 times more effective at killing cancer cells than the widely used anti-cancer drug cisplatin and were also better at inhibiting tumour growth.

The molecules were also more targeted and selective, making them promising candidates for development into a new class of gold-based drugs that can wipe out the cancer without destroying healthy cells.

Significantly, the synthetic molecules are built with resistance-fighting features to keep them effective over time, unlike current chemotherapies.

The study, detailing four new bio-active molecules and their effectiveness against five types of cancer cells, is published in Chemistry – A European Journal. It will also feature on an upcoming cover of the journal.

Worth its weight

Dr Neda Mirzadeh, co-leader of the Molecular Engineering Group, said the limitations of commonly used metal-based chemotherapies drove a need to find better alternatives.

“We’ve made huge inroads in cancer treatment over recent decades, but the disease still kills over 9.6 million people globally each year and remains the world’s second leading cause of death,” Dr Mirzadeh said.

“While metal-based drugs have successfully pushed survival rates up, their effectiveness is limited because of toxic side effects, drug resistance and poor stability.

“The gold-based molecules we’ve designed are far more selective and stable.

“Our results show there’s incredible potential here for the development of new cancer-fighting therapeutics that can deliver lasting power and precision.”

A golden opportunity

The molecules were evaluated in pre-clinical tests and found to be highly cytotoxic against prostate, breast, cervical, melanoma and colon cancer cells.

Animal trials showed treatment with the molecules significantly inhibited tumour growth (up to 46.9 per cent, compared with 29 per cent for cisplatin).

The gold-based compounds also inhibit the action of an enzyme found in cancer cells, thioredoxin reductase, that is linked with cancer progression and the development of drug resistance.

Distinguished Professor Suresh Bhargava FTSE

In addition, the molecules have strong anti-inflammatory properties, giving them a dual therapeutic effect and potential application in the treatment of chronic inflammatory conditions like arthritis.

The research team has completed successful in vitro and in vivo pre-clinical studies and is seeking funding to support the next stage of the research – clinical studies and regulatory approval.

Professor Suresh Bhargava was elected a Fellow in 2010.