The new treatment, named JPC11, can be recycled and reused within cancerous cells to attack them repeatedly, according to a study by the University of Warwick.
It is hoped the approach could lessen the side effects of chemotherapy and overcome increasing resistance to existing drugs.
Researchers are focusing on the potential uses of JPC11 in treating ovarian and prostate cancers.
Dr James Coverdale, research fellow from the University of Warwick, said: “This is a significant step in the fight against cancer.”
JPC11 is activated with a dose of sodium formate, a natural substance found in organisms including stinging nettles and ants, and targets the metabolic process which causes cancer cells to multiply.
The compound converts the energy cancer cells need to divide rapidly into an unnatural lactate which leads to their destruction, according to the study published in the Nature Chemistry journal.
Dr Coverdale said: “Manipulating and applying well-established chemistry in a biological context provides a highly selective strategy for killing cancer cells.
“We have discovered that chemo-catalyst JPC11 has a unique mechanism of action – and we hope that this will lead to more effective, selective and safer treatments in the future.”
The reusable characteristics of the treatment could lead to anti-cancer drugs being administered in smaller but more effective doses in the future, and decrease the side effects of chemotherapy.
The study also found JPC11 left healthy cells “largely untouched” while attacking cancerous ones.
Lead researcher Professor Peter Sadler, a medicinal chemist at the University of Warwick, said: “Platinum compounds are the most widely used drugs for cancer chemotherapy, but we urgently need to respond to the challenges of circumventing resistance and side effects.
“Our lab is focused on the discovery of truly novel anti-cancer drugs which can kill cells in totally new ways.
“Chemo-catalysts, especially those with immunogenic properties, might provide a breakthrough.”