Tweaked malaria protein ‘can find and destroy nine out of 10 cancers’

    14 October 2015

    Where would medicine be without the good fortune of a discovery made by accident?

    Scientists at the University of Copenhagen were working on a malaria vaccine for pregnant women when they stumbled across a way to kill cancer cells.

    They realised that the malaria parasite attached itself to a carbohydrate in the placenta that was identical to the carbohydrate found in cancer cells.

    In the laboratory they then created the protein that the parasite used to do this and ‘armed’ this protein with a toxin.

    The combination of malaria protein and toxin seems to be able to seek out and destroy nine out of 10 cancers.

    Studies so far, published in Cancer Cell, have been conducted in cell cultures and on mice but it is hoped that human trials will begin in four years’ time.

    Mads Daugaard, at the University of British Columbia in Canada, explained that human tumours were implanted in the mice.

    The treatment reduced non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma tumours to a quarter of the size of those in the mice control group. For prostate cancer, the tumours disappeared in two of the six treated mice after a month. For 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.

    Professor Ali Salanti, of the Faculty of Medical Health and Sciences at the University of Copenhagen, said:

    ‘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.’