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Malaria-infected red blood cell (blue). Credit: Flickr/CC BY 2.0

You may have seen some of the headlines today reporting a new ‘miracle drug’ that could cure nine out of 10 cancers. It sounds amazing, but is it true?

Unfortunately, the answer is no. At least for now. But that’s not to say this isn’t important, promising new research.

The reports centre on the supposedly serendipitous discovery of a link between an experimental malaria vaccine for pregnant women, and a molecule that sits on the surface of cancer cells.

So what did the study – published in the journal Cancer Cell – actually show?

What they did

The researchers – based at the University of Copenhagen – had originally been trying to develop a vaccine to prevent pregnant women becoming infected with malaria, because they’re particularly prone to the disease.

The malaria parasite infects pregnant women by producing a molecule called VAR2CSA, which binds to another molecule found on the surface of the placenta called chondroitin sulphate.

So to try to prevent this, the researchers had developed a modified, artificial form of VAR2CSA that could stick to the cells of the placenta, protecting them from infection with malaria.

But the study behind today’s headlines showed something unexpected – it turns out that cancer cells also produce molecules on their surface that are extremely similar to the chondroitin sulphate found on the placenta.

So the researchers wondered if tweaking their experimental malaria drug might turn it into something that could kill cancer cells.

To test this, they further modified their VAR2CSA protein so that it contained a cancer-killing toxin, and added this to cancer cells grown in the lab. They also tested the vaccine by treating mice with prostate cancer, melanoma and a type of lymphoma.

Their experiments showed that the VAR2CSA was able to stick to, and kill, the cancer cells – but left healthy cells alone.

It’s exciting stuff. But did this research show that this modified malaria vaccine could be a ‘cure’ for nine in 10 cancers?

The short answer is no. (We think this press release might be where that misleading figure came from).

Not nine in 10

What the researchers actually showed was that in the group of cancer cells they studied – which didn’t include all types of cancer – the majority (95 per cent) of them also produced chondroitin sulphate on their surface.

This means that their experimental VAR2CSA-based molecule could potentially be used to target these cancers in the future. But not without a lot more research.

And the study was done in mice, meaning before it can be used to treat cancer in people, we need to understand more about it, and whether it’s safe to be used in humans.

This would also require larger studies to see if the vaccine kills cancer cells in the same way in people while leaving healthy cells alone – and to work out which patients, with which cancers could benefit.

So while this certainly is exciting research, that could one day help cancer patients in the future, at the moment, it is definitely not a ‘miracle’ drug that will cure nine out of 10 cancers.

Áine

Reference

Salanti, A., et al. (2015). Targeting Human Cancer by a Glycosaminoglycan Binding Malaria Protein Cancer Cell, 28 (4), 500-514 DOI: 10.1016/j.ccell.2015.09.003

Comments

bob March 11, 2016

Jesus crust, if someone is terminally Ill with cancer, do you think they give Shot about about safety of a drug, and having to wait 10 years for research to catch up with mice, dogs or chimps. If some one is willing to sign a legal document giving immunity to prosecution, then give them the drug and see what happens. Cancer is not a desease to pussey foot around. Either you want to cure people or you don’t.

Vivianne Muniz January 25, 2016

We are looking for a medication named Plasmotrin in England and have been able to
Find it for an emergency .Need information .is not for Malaria but it may kill a megalo virus

Paws4mercy December 26, 2015

I think that this deserves more attention and support from insurance companies as a way to lower the cost of current cancer treatments that don’t work but keep generating income for big pharma !

moen cabisada December 4, 2015

I was thinking about the cure. Why not develop an artificial cell. creating new types of cell. example: replacing the ordinary or standard red blood cell. with new artificial red blood cell that is already immune to or new sets of rna and dna (replacing the old types of cells) and killing all old type of cells, a transplant in the bone marrow

Atahualpa Perdomo October 17, 2015

CANCER CAN ONLY BE RESOLVED IF WE RESTORE THE IMMUNE SYSTEM FIRST,ALL SCIENTISTS KNOW THIS, A LONG TIME AGO.
DEFECTS IN THE IMMUNE SYSTEM GENERATING WRONG SIGNALS,ARE RESPONSIBLE FOR EPIGENETIC STATES IN THE MALIGNANT PROCESSES

sheila October 15, 2015

We have Lynch Syndrome in our family
Can you do any thing for that???

johnrochdale October 15, 2015

What the news item actualy means it is a new field to research. There are many steps to go before there is any certainty of a ‘Cure’ This is just a headline grabbing news item with little substance. In time, and with enough money, many of the most common cancers will be slowed down or even stopped, but that day is far in the future, so please stop raising false hopes please

Alan October 15, 2015

Like Penicillin was accidentally found this could be the same “HOPEFULLY”. Lets wait and see what the research holds, Its a step forward for the future.