Danish researchers from the Department of Immunology and Microbiology (ISIM) at the University of Copenhagen might very well have stumbled into the holy grail of research: a cure for cancer.
The new treatment, developed in co-operation with researchers from the University of British Columbia (UBC) in Canada, apparently kills off about 95 percent of all cancer cells. Human trials are expected to start in a few years.
The researchers made the discovery by coincidence during the testing of a vaccine against malaria on humans. They found that the same carbohydrate in the placenta was also present in cancer tumours.
“We examined the carbohydrate’s function. In the placenta, it helps to ensure fast growth. Our experiments showed it was the same in cancer tumours. 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,” said Ali Salanti, a professor at ISIM.
The researchers from the two universities have now tested thousands of samples from brain tumours to leukaemia, and the indications are that the malaria protein is able to attack over 90 percent of all tumour types.
Sterling results in mice
The method has been tested on mice implanted with three types of human cancer tumours. The prostate cancer tumours vanished in two out of the six mice a month after receiving the first dose, while with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, the tumours were about the quarter of the size of the tumours in the control group.
With metastatic bone cancer, five out of six mice were still alive after nearly eight weeks, compared to no live mice in the control group.
“It appears the malaria protein attaches itself to the tumour 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 tumour and even make it shrink,” said Thomas Mandel Clausen, a PhD student at UBC.
One problem, however, is that the treatment would be unavailable for pregnant women as the malaria toxin will kill the placenta as it will mistake it for a tumour.
“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 tumours in humans,” said Ali Salanti.