Danish scientists Ali Salanti and Mads Daugaard were looking for an effective vaccine against malaria in pregnant women but they may have discovered something much more powerful.
Salanti, a malaria researcher at the University of Copenhagen (KU), and Daugaard, a cancer researcher at the University of British Columbia (UBC), discovered that the carbohydrate that the malaria parasite attaches itself to in a pregnant woman's placenta is identical to a carbohydrate found in cancer cells.
A Copenhagen-based team of scientists recreated the protein used by the malaria parasite and then added a toxin. When the toxin-carrying parasite seeks out cancer cells, the toxin is released and the cancer cell is killed.
“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,” Salanti said in a KU press release.
The process has been successfully used on cancer-inflicted mice and Salanti's team at KU is working on a vaccine for humans that they hope will be ready for testing within four years.
After his discovery, Salanti reached out to former KU student Daugaard, who now heads UBC's Laboratory of Molecular Pathology at the Vancouver Prostate Center. The Danish and Canadian teams have since found that the malaria protein is able to successfully attack more than 90 percent of all tumours in mice. The new approach has shown promising results in treating non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, prostate cancer and metastatic bone cancer.
“By conducting tests on mice, we have been able to show that the combination of protein and toxin kill the cancer cells,” Daugaard said.
KU and the involved scientists have created a biotech company, VAR2pharmaceuticals, to focus on clinical development with an eye toward human testing.
“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,” Salanti said.
If the vaccine does work on humans, it would not be made available for pregnant women as “the toxin will believe that the placenta is a tumour and kill it, in exactly the same way it will believe that a tumour is a placenta,” Salanti said.
The Danish scientists' work has recently been described in the scientific journal Cancer Cell.