Malaria is one of the widest-reaching disease facing humanity today, with almost 200 million estimated cases worldwide in 2013.Typically borne by the female Anopholes mosquito, the plasmodium parasite enters the human bloodstream through her bite, and proceeds to travel to the liver, reproducing and eventually entering red blood cells. Once there, the erythrocytes are destroyed, which can lead to fevers, chills, severe anaemia, and death. Not, generally speaking, an ideal situation.
However, according to scientists at the University of British Columbia, it has been discovered that a common malarial protein may potentially hold the key to a novel cancer treatment. It had been previously noted by a team in Copenhagen that this protein binds to a specific sugar molecule in the placenta while investigating the effects of malaria in pregnant women, this very same molecule present in most forms of cancer. Furthermore, the two tissues are more comparable than you might think. A placenta grows from a single cell into an organ weighing nearly a kilogram over the space of a few months, which requires aggressive cell division, much like tumour formation.
“A malarial protein can move through the body to the site of the cancerous cells, enter them, and release the toxin once inside”
This sugar molecule then, is a prime candidate for targeting anti-cancer drugs. A malarial protein can have a toxic molecule attached to it, move through the body to the site of the cancerous cells, enter them, and release the toxin once inside. To test this hypothesis, John Babcook and his team at The Centre For Drug Research and Development (CDRD) attached a typical toxin to a manually recreated malarial protein and used in the treatment of a huge variety of normal and cancerous cell lines in mouse test subjects. In their study, more than 90% of the cancerous cell lines were destroyed, including samples from leukaemia to brain tumours. It was noted that when treating Hodgkins’ disease, a type of cancer originating from malfunctioning white blood cells, the tumours were approximately a quarter of the size of those in the control group. A very promising start for a highly specific and seemingly very effective treatment. Furthermore, when testing against metastatic bone cancer, five out the six treated mice were alive after nearly eight weeks, compared to none in the control group that had received no treatment.
While simply exchanging one horrific ailment with another might seem counter-productive, Thomas Mandel Clausen, one of the PhD students involved with the experiment has said that the malarial protein only binds to the target cancerous cells “without any significant attachment to other issue”.
“While simply exchanging one horrific ailment with another might seem counter-productive... malarial protein only binds to the target cancerous cells”
As with all novel medical treatments, there will be quite a wait until safety testing is complete.
In order to move this process forward, the University of Copenhagen has formed a new biotechnology company, VAR2≠pharmaceuticals in collaboration with the research team behind the discovery. Human trials are expected to be feasible within four years, as it is currently unknown whether this targeting system will work within the rather more complex human body, and what side effects could potentially arise from the toxin dosages that would be required. Overall though, first impressions are extremely positive, and we may well be looking at one of the most successful cancer treatments of the future.