UBC researchers use malaria protein to help fight cancer

A ground-breaking discovery made by researchers at the University of British Columbia could pave the way to better cancer treatments.

The research involves using a malaria protein to target cancer cells.

Initially, researchers were exploring why pregnant women are particularly susceptible to malaria. They found that the mosquito-borne parasite produces a protein that binds to a particular type of sugar molecule in the placenta.

The same sugar molecule is also found in most cancers, since both cancers and placentas grow rapidly.

The researchers realized that the sugar molecule could be a target for anti-cancer drugs.

In particular, a malaria protein labelled “VAR2CSA” could carry such drugs to tumours, in a precise and controlled way.

Researchers have already tried to attach a toxin to VAR2CSA and treat hundreds of normal and cancer cell lines. The drug compound specifically targeted and killed more than 95 per cent of the cancer cell lines.

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The drug was then tested on mice implanted with three types of human tumours. Mice with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma had tumours that were were about a quarter the size of the tumours in the control group. The tumours of mice with prostate cancer completely disappeared in two of the six treated mice a month after receiving the first dose. With metastatic breast cancer, five out of six treated mice were cured from metastatic disease.

More importantly, the mice showed no adverse side-effects and their organs were unharmed.

Project leader Mads Daugaard says this is a departure from chemotherapy, the standard treatment for most types of cancer.

“This is a therapy where you bombard the whole body with toxin,” he says. “It is connected with severe side effects in most cases. What we have developed here as a potential new strategy is we can directly target the tumour cells without harming normal cells.”

Daugaard says it is ironic that a serious disease like malaria can be exploited by researchers to target another deadly condition.

Two companies are currently developing the compound for clinical trials in humans, which will take another three to four years to complete.

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