NEW HAVEN — Yale University researchers have determined how a scarce molecule produced by marine bacteria can kill cancer cells, paving the way for the development of new, low-dose chemotherapies.

The molecule, lomaiviticin A, was previously shown to be lethal to cultured human cancer cells, but the mechanism of its operation remained unsolved for more than a decade. In a series of experiments, Yale scientists Seth Herzon, Peter Glazer and colleagues show that the molecule nicks, cleaves and ultimately destroys cancer cells’ DNA, preventing their replication.

“DNA is one of the primary targets of anticancer agents, and cleavage of both DNA chains is the most potent form of DNA damage,” said Herzon, a professor of chemistry. “But few anticancer agents are able to directly cleave DNA. The discovery that lomaiviticin A is capable of this suggests it could be very useful as a novel chemotherapy, possibly at low doses.”

Results were published in the journal Nature Chemistry.