COVID-19 Resource Center

Review the latest information on visitor policies, safety procedures, vaccines, and more in the COVID-19 Resource Center.

Notice of a Privacy Incident

Learn more about this incident.

New Therapies and Drug Trials

Unlocking Arsenic for Cancer Treatment

New Study Explores Arsenic Treatment for Leukemia

One of the most dangerous poisons in the world is also a treatment for one rare form of leukemia. A new understanding of this treatment that has emerged from a recent Northwestern Medicine study may lead to future breakthroughs in treating different kinds of leukemia.

Arsenic, specifically the compound arsenic trioxide, has a 500-year history of medicinal use.  More recently, it’s begun to shape the future of cancer through a unique reaction on the cellular level: In very small doses, arsenic trioxide can treat acute promyelocytic leukemia. Despite this surprising success, other forms of leukemia remain immune, and treating with any larger dose would be toxic.

With this in mind, Leonidas Platanias, MD, PhD, director of the Robert H. Lurie Comprehensive Cancer Center of Northwestern University, and post-doctoral fellow Elspeth Beauchamp, PhD, set out to discover how arsenic can help treat other forms of leukemia. The Northwestern Medicine study, published in Molecular Cancer Therapeutics, identified the defensive mechanisms that stop arsenic from killing cancer in other leukemia cells and introduced potential applications for better treatment.

Activating Cancer Fighting Capabilities

According to Dr. Platanias, it may be possible to target one of the enzymes involved in the cancer fighting activity to increase the sensitivity of leukemia cells to the capabilities of arsenic. Scientists can hopefully use this information to develop combination therapies with small doses of the poison while blocking the defensive pathways inhibiting its effects.

In most cases, arsenic will likely still be thought of as poison for the foreseeable future, but with additional studies suggesting the benefits for cancer, the chemical is getting a closer look.