When most people think of arsenic, they think of poison. The notorious metal is said to have killed such greats as Napoleon Bonaparte and Simón Bolívar. But researchers at Northwestern University say the compound might also save lives—most notably as a potent drug against certain types of leukemia, according to a recent press release from the university.

A recent study led by chemist Tom O’Holloran, PhD, a world-renowned expert on inorganic compounds, specifically metals, and how they function in the body notes that some of the most potent cancer drugs ever made include metals such as iron, gold, bismuth, titanium and platinum. Though arsenic exposure is normally associated with an increased risk of cancer, the researcher wanted to see whether he could use the metal’s toxicity for healing. 

For the study, O’Halloran and his team put particles of arsenic into a tiny droplet of fat to create a “nanobin." Once injected into the bloodstream, the nanobins travel until they reach cancer cells, at which point they release their arsenic. 

The study showed that low doses of arsenic trioxide resulted in a 95 percent remission rate in acute promyeloctic leukemia (APL), a type of blood cancer. The delivery method for the drug, which is described in detail here, uses cancer biology to its advantage, creating a targeted therapy that hones in on malignancies without attacking healthy cells. 

Moving forward, the research team hopes to investigate how nanobins may also be able to target breast, ovarian, lung and brain cancers.