Malaria vaccine provides hope for a cure for cancer

Posted: 13 October 2015 | Victoria White

Scientists have created a malaria protein with a toxin seeks out cancer cells. The protein is absorbed, the toxin released inside, and then the cancer cells die…

Scientists from the University of Copenhagen and the University of British Columbia have made an unexpected breakthrough – their hunt for a weapon to fight malaria in pregnant women has revealed that armed malaria proteins can kill cancer.

Mads Daugaard and Professor Ali Salanti have 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.

In the laboratory, scientists have created the protein that the malaria parasite uses to adhere to the placenta and added a toxin. This combination of malaria protein and toxin seeks out the cancer cells, is absorbed, the toxin released inside, and then the cancer cells die. This process has been witnessed in cell cultures and in mice with cancer.

“For decades, scientists have been searching for similarities between the growth of a placenta and a tumour. 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, tumours do much the same, they grow aggressively in a relatively foreign environment,” said Ali Salanti from the Department of Immunology and Microbiology at the University of Copenhagen.

A carbohydrate in the placenta is also present in cancer tumours

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 tumours. Ali Salanti immediately contacted his former fellow student and now cancer researcher, Mads Daugaard, who is head of the Laboratory of Molecular Pathology at the Vancouver Prostate Centre 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 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,” Ali Salanti explained.

In collaboration, the two university research groups have tested thousands of samples and a general picture emerges to indicate that the malaria protein is able to attack more than 90% of all types of tumours. The drug has been tested on mice that were implanted with three types of human tumours. With non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, the treated mice’s tumours were about a quarter the size of the tumours in the control group. With prostate cancer, the tumours 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.

Malaria protein and toxin killed cancer cells in mice

“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 explained.

“It appears that 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,” PhD student Thomas Mandel Clausen elaborates. He has been part of the research project for the last two years.

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 researchers behind the discovery hope to be able to conduct tests on humans within four years.

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