Scientists stumble onto possible cancer cure

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By Mark Ellis

Malaria researcher Ali Salanti
Malaria researcher Ali Salanti

A Danish scientist and his team hunting for a vaccine against malaria in pregnant women may have unexpectedly found a cure for cancer. The scientists behind the vaccine aim for tests on humans within four years.

Cancer and malaria researchers from the University of Copenhagen (UCPH) and the University of British Columbia (UBC) discovered that malaria proteins armed with a toxin can kill cancer, according to a report by UCPH.

Mads Daugaard from the University of British Columbia and malaria researcher Ali Salanti from UCPH revealed that the carbohydrate that the malaria parasite attaches itself to in the placenta in pregnant women is identical to a carbohydrate found in cancer cells.

cancer cell
cancer cell

In the laboratory, scientists added a toxin to the protein that the malaria parasite uses to adhere to the placenta. This combination of malaria protein and toxin seeks out the cancer cells, is absorbed, the toxin is released inside, and then the cancer cells die, according to the UCPH report.

Using cell cultures and mice with cancer, the researchers tested thousands of samples from brain tumors to leukemias and found the malaria protein is able to attack more than 90% of all types of tumors.

With non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, the treated mice’s tumors were about a quarter the size of the tumors in the control group. With prostate cancer, the tumors disappeared in two of the six treated mice a month after receiving the first dose. With metastatic bone cancer, five out of six of the treated mice were alive after almost eight weeks, compared to none of the mice in a control group.

The discovery was described in a recent article in the renowned scientific journal Cancer Cell.

“For decades, scientists have been searching for similarities between the growth of a placenta and a tumor. The placenta is an organ, which within a few months grows from only few cells into an organ weighing approx. 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,” says Ali Salanti from the Department of Immunology and Microbiology at UCPH.

Ali Salanti’s team is currently testing a vaccine against malaria on humans, and it was in connection with the development of this drug that he discovered that the carbohydrate in the placenta was also present in cancer tumors.

Ali Salanti immediately contacted his former fellow student and now cancer researcher, Mads Daugaard, who is

Cancer researcher Mads Dougaard
Cancer researcher Mads Daugaard

head of the Laboratory of Molecular Pathology at the Vancouver Prostate Center at UBC in Canada. In collaboration, the two groups have generated results, which they hope will provide the basis for a drug against cancer.

“We examined the carbohydrate’s function. In the placenta, it helps ensure fast growth. Our experiments showed that it was the same in cancer tumors. We combined the malaria parasite with cancer cells and the parasite reacted to the cancer cells as if they were a placenta and attached itself,” Ali Salanti explains.

Destroys cancer cells

“We have separated the malaria protein, which attaches itself to the carbohydrate and then added a toxin. By conducting tests on mice, we have been able to show that the combination of protein and toxin kill the cancer cells,” Mads Daugaard explains.

“It appears that the malaria protein attaches itself to the tumor without any significant attachment to other tissue. And the mice that were given doses of protein and toxin showed far higher survival rates than the untreated mice. We have seen that three doses can arrest growth in a tumor and even make it shrink,” PhD student Thomas Mandel Clausen elaborates. He has been part of the research project for the last two years.

It would appear that the only snag is the fact that the treatment would not be available for pregnant women.

“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,” Ali Salanti states.

In collaboration with the scientists behind the discovery, the University of Copenhagen has created the biotech company, VAR2pharmaceuticals, which will drive the clinical development forward. The research teams working with Ali Salanti and Mads Daugaard are now working purposefully towards being able to conduct tests on humans.

“The earliest possible test scenario is in four years time. 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. 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,” Ali Salanti concludes.

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