Could we have found a cure for cancer – by accident?
Scientist at the University of Copenhagen and the University of British Columbia say they have evidence indicating that a malaria protein may be the “magic bullet” that finally puts medicine science on the path to eradication of the dread disease. The two research groups tested thousands of samples ranging from brain tumors to leukemias, and their findings have led them to believe that a malaria protein used in vaccines is able attack more than 90% of tumor types.
The surprising discovery came as the team was working on the problem of malaria proteins attacking the placenta in a pregnant woman by attaching themselves to the carbohydrate that stimulates its development.
“For decades, scientists have been searching for similarities between the growth of a placenta and a tumor,” said Ali Salanti from University of Copenhagen. “The placenta is an organ, which within a few months grows from only few cells into an organ weighing approximately two pounds, and it provides the embryo with oxygen and nourishment in a relatively foreign environment. In a manner of speaking, tumors do much the same. They grow aggressively in a relatively foreign environment.”
The potential cure works by combining the bit of protein that the malaria vaccine uses to bury into cells with a toxin — that can then bury into cancer cells and release the toxin, killing them off.
The experiment involved injecting a combination of the protein the malaria vaccine uses to bore into cells with a toxin that can be released in the process. The researchers found that the protein attaches itself to the same carbohydrate in tumors as in the placenta, and that’s the breakthrough that holds great promise for a cancer cure.
So far the technique has been tested only in cells and on mice with cancer, with the findings described in a new article for the journal Cancer Cell. In the three types of cancer the animals were implanted with, impressive results were observed. Non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma tumors had shrunk to a quarter of their original size, prostate cancer was gone entirely in two of six mice, and five of six were kept alive with metastatic bone cancer while all others in a control group died.
“The biggest questions are whether it’ll work in the human body, and if the human body can tolerate the doses needed without developing side effects,” said Salanti. “But we’re optimistic because the protein appears to only attach itself to a carbohydrate that is only found in the placenta and in cancer tumors in humans. Expressed in popular terms, the toxin will believe that the placenta is a tumor and kill it, in exactly the same way it will believe that a tumor is a placenta.”
Scientists hope to be able to start testing on humans in the next four years.