Scientists have made a discovery that may pave the way for a completely new kind of cancer treatment. And it all happened kind of by accident.
Professor Ali Salanti and his team were researching malaria in pregnant women, when they discovered one particular sugar structure that could bind malaria parasites to the placenta during pregnancy. It turned out that the exact same sugar structure is also found in cancer cells.
Salanti and colleagues discovered that this ‘binding agent’ could be used to attach a poison-carrying protein from the malaria parasite directly onto the cancer cell, thereby killing the cancer.
"For the first time we have shown that it's possible to hit the specific sugar structure in cancer. And we’ve been able to do so using this malaria protein," says co-author Mads Daugaard from the University of British Columbia, Canada.
Scientists can artificially create this protein in the lab. Once bound to the sugar structure within the cancer cell, it can then transport poison to the malicious cells and kill them. The new discovery may be a breakthrough in cancer research.
"This may turn out to be something really great. The only sticking point is whether it’s safe for people. We expect it is, because usually the malaria parasite can only bind itself to the placenta and no other place in the body," says Daugaard.
So far, the scientists have tried the treatment on mice, with good results: one third of mice with prostate cancer were cured following treatment, whilst every single mouse in in a group with breast cancer made a full recovery.
Human trials are planned to start within the next four years.
"We won’t know if it works until we have tested it on humans. But all the experiments on mice are promising," says Daugaard.
Professor Ulrik Lassen from Copenhagen University Hospital, Denmark, thinks the results are exciting, but emphasises that the cancer treatment will not necessarily work in humans:
"It’s easier to treat mice than people. And unforeseen side effects may yet emerge when we test the method on cancer patients. But looking at the mechanism involved, and the results of animal tests, it looks really exciting," he says, to the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten.
Professor Peter Hokland studies leukaemia at Aarhus University, Denmark, and is impressed with the new study. He believes that the treatment will work in cancer patients, and hopes that it makes it to a human trial soon.
"Sometimes the things that are hailed as a cancer breakthrough in the media are built on quite dubious data. But this is rock-solid," says Hokland, who was not involved in the new research.
He remarks that whilst the new treatment did not kill all cancer cells, it successfully eliminated the majority in preliminary tests. He hopes the researchers will address this issue in the future.
"What they need to look at now is whether the cancer stem cells themselves can be killed by this. But it’s currently a very impressive piece of work, which will hopefully be taken further," says Hokland.