Mediating K+/H+ Transport on Organelle Membranes to Selectively Eradicate Cancer Stem Cells with a Small Molecule

J Am Chem Soc. 2020 Jun 17;142(24):10769-10779. doi: 10.1021/jacs.0c02134. Epub 2020 Jun 4.


Molecules that are capable of disrupting cellular ion homeostasis offer unique opportunities to treat cancer. However, previously reported synthetic ion transporters showed limited value, as promiscuous ionic disruption caused toxicity to both healthy cells and cancer cells indiscriminately. Here we report a simple yet efficient synthetic K+ transporter that takes advantage of the endogenous subcellular pH gradient and membrane potential to site-selectively mediate K+/H+ transport on the mitochondrial and lysosomal membranes in living cells. Consequent mitochondrial and lysosomal damages enhanced cytotoxicity to chemo-resistant ovarian cancer stem cells (CSCs) via apoptosis induction and autophagy suppression with remarkable selectivity (up to 47-fold). The eradication of CSCs blunted tumor formation in mice. We believe this strategy can be exploited in the structural design and applications of next-generation synthetic cation transporters for the treatment of cancer and other diseases related to dysfunctional K+ channels.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Cell Line, Tumor
  • Humans
  • Hydrogen-Ion Concentration
  • Ion Transport
  • Molecular Structure
  • Neoplastic Stem Cells / chemistry
  • Neoplastic Stem Cells / metabolism*
  • Organelles / chemistry
  • Organelles / metabolism*
  • Potassium / chemistry
  • Potassium / metabolism*


  • Potassium