Researchers are using a protein produced by the malaria parasite to test its effectiveness in combating cancer.
The protein, identified as VAR2CSA, readily attaches to the sugar molecule found in the placenta of pregnant women, making them vulnerable to malaria. The same sugar molecule is also found in most cancer cells.
Now, researchers have shown it is possible to attach anticancer drugs to the malaria protein and target the sugar molecule in the cancer cell, thereby delivering the drug precisely to the tumors. Results from studies conducted on mice at the University of British Columbia in Canada showed the new approach halted the growth of various tumors.
The researchers tested their idea in two ways: first in tumor cell lines — a group of cells cultivated in the laboratory from a single tumor cell — and then in mice, using a drug that combines the malaria protein with an anticancer toxin.
In cell lines, they found that the combination drug specifically targeted and killed more than 95 percent of cancer cell lines. And in mice implanted with three types of human tumors, the drug also showed varying degrees of success. In mice with non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, the treated tumors shrank to a quarter of the size of untreated tumors. With prostate cancer, the drug completely eliminated tumors in two of six treated mice within a month of administering the first dose, and with metastatic breast cancer, five of six treated mice were cured of the disease.
The researchers say the mice showed no adverse side effects from the treatment and their organs were unharmed by it. Two companies, one in Vancouver and the other in Copenhagen, Denmark, where some of the researchers are based, are already developing the drug and preparing it for human trials, which they believe will take 3-4 years.