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