A compound found in many foods and drinks could form the basis for new drugs to defeat cancer and heart disease, scientists at University College London (UCL) in the UK claimed this week.
Professor Peter Shepherd and his team at UCL believe that caffeine and theophylline - compounds commonly found in cola beverages, coffee, tea and chocolate - block the operation of a key enzyme linked to a wide range of cell functions.
They suggest that these compounds would block cell growth and blood clotting, and might also explain the anti-inflammatory properties of theophylline, a drug used for many years in asthma treatment.
The enzyme, PI-3 Kinase, is thought by scientists to play a key role in the signalling mechanism which determines cell growth and death. The particular form of the enzyme targeted by caffeine - called p110 delta - was also recently found by another UCL team for being responsible for orchestrating the human body's response to infection and to be potentially involved in the development of irritable bowel disease.
Operating deep within the cell, PI-3 Kinase stimulates phosphates to be attached onto a particular lipid sited within the membrane of the cell. This process triggers the signalling pathways that ultimately control cell growth, movement and survival.
In the studies, genetically engineered insect cells were used to produce p110delta and a standard biochemical test was conducted to establish if phosphates had indeed attached to lipids. Caffeine and the closely related molecule theophylline blocked this process, providing compelling evidence, the scientists suggest, that caffeine had indeed acted to block the functioning of the p110 delta enzyme.
Professor Peter Shepherd said: "We`ve shown that caffeine-like compounds play a novel role in blocking enzymes known to play a critical role in a range of cellular functions in the body. Alongside possible advances in cancer treatment, this research suggests that caffeine type drugs could be used to treat heart disease and inflammatory illnesses."
" But the message to the general public is not to overdose on chocolate or coffee. The study relied on using high concentrations of caffeine that would be unhealthy for human use. Caffeine has well known side-effects that make it inappropriate for drug use."
"The next stage of our research will be to develop compounds which mimic the structure of caffeine but without its negative effects."
Full findings are published in the August issue of the Journal of Biological Chemistry.