Trek Magazine - - Editor’s Note -

A drug cre­ated from a malaria protein stopped tu­mour growth of chemo­ther­apy-re­sis­tant blad­der can­cer, of­fer­ing hope for can­cer pa­tients not responding to stan­dard treat­ments.

“This is the first study where we put the con­cept of us­ing malaria pro­teins for can­cer therapy into a di­rect clin­i­cal con­text,” said Mads Dau­gaard, as­sis­tant pro­fes­sor of uro­logic science and a se­nior re­search sci­en­tist at the Van­cou­ver Prostate Cen­tre and the Van­cou­ver Coastal Health Re­search In­sti­tute. “There is a mas­sive clin­i­cal need to find new treat­ments for blad­der can­cer and we saw an op­por­tu­nity to tar­get this dis­ease with our new malaria drug.”

The study ad­vances pre­vi­ous re­search that showed that a protein from the malaria par­a­site, called VAR2CSA, could tar­get a wide range of can­cer tu­mours.

In the new re­search, highly ag­gres­sive blad­der can­cer tu­mours that were com­pletely re­sis­tant to chemo­ther­apy were im­planted in the blad­der of mice. The re­searchers then tested whether the malaria protein could de­liver drugs di­rectly to tu­mours.

They found that the tu­mours re­sponded dra­mat­i­cally to the malaria drug combo.

Eighty per cent of the treated an­i­mals were alive af­ter 70 days, whereas all the other an­i­mals, in three dif­fer­ent con­trol groups, suc­cumbed to blad­der can­cer.

Blad­der can­cer is the fifth most com­mon can­cer and the most ex­pen­sive can­cer to man­age on a per pa­tient ba­sis. Cur­rently, there is only one line of chemo­ther­apy used for in­va­sive blad­der can­cer, and there have been few ad­vances to­wards find­ing new treat­ments in the past 20 years.

“Chemo­ther­apy is the main­stay of treat­ment, and only a mi­nor­ity of pa­tients re­spond to the sec­ond treat­ment option, im­munother­apy,” said Dau­gaard. “We’re very ex­cited by these re­sults be­cause it shows that we are on our way to de­vel­op­ing a com­pletely new treat­ment option for lethal blad­der can­cer.”

In pre­vi­ous stud­ies, Dau­gaard and his col­league Ali Salanti (Univer­sity of Copen­hagen) es­tab­lished that the VAR2CSA protein could be used to de­liver can­cer drugs di­rectly to tu­mours, be­cause it binds to a sugar mol­e­cule that is found only in can­cer tu­mours and the pla­centa of preg­nant an­i­mals. These lat­est find­ings demon­strate that the same sugar is ex­pressed in blad­der can­cer and is es­pe­cially abun­dant in tu­mours that progress af­ter be­ing treated with the stan­dard chemo­ther­apy drug cis­platin. The re­searchers’ next steps are to de­sign a process that could see the VAR2CSA drug com­bi­na­tion man­u­fac­tured on a larger scale to be­gin clin­i­cal tri­als. This is be­ing led by Dau­gaard and Salanti through their startup com­pany VAR2 Phar­ma­ceu­ti­cals.

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