The Post

Malaria parasite protein could be key to beating cancer


A POWERFUL NEW anti-cancer tool based on part of the malaria parasite can kill more than nine out of 10 kinds of cancer in humans, according to a pilot study.

Scientists searching for a malaria vaccine to use in pregnant women have stumbled across a marker that could identify and destroy the vast majority of cancer cells.

Independen­t experts said the discovery would be immensely significan­t if confirmed.

For years, researcher­s have been trying to find chemical labels on cancer cells that they can target. Because cancers vary so greatly in their make-up, it is extremely rare to find drugs that work against more than a handful.

Now researcher­s in Denmark have accidental­ly found a marker that is said to be present in more than 90 per cent of tumour types, paving the way for a broad-brush therapy that could transform the war on cancer.

Ali Salanti, a malaria researcher at the University of Copenhagen, was studying how the parasite Plasmodium falciparum, a species that causes malaria in pregnant women, latches on to cells in the placenta, when he noticed a remarkable similarity with cancer cells.

The placenta and most common cancers have a particular carbohydra­te, known as sulphate A, on the their cells.

The malaria parasite has a protein that seeks out this carbohydra­te and uses it to bind to placental cells. Salanti and his colleagues discovered that this protein, VAR2CSA, does the same thing to tumour cells.

Cutting out the protein and yoking it to the diphtheria toxin, produced by infectious bacteria, or another toxic chemical called hemiasterl­in, chondroiti­n surfaces of the scientists found they could kill most cancer cells but leave other cells unharmed.

When they tested the treatment on geneticall­y engineered mice that had three types of human tumour – prostate cancer, nonHodgkin’s lymphoma and a breast cancer that had spread into their bones – it dramatical­ly shrank their tumours.

The marriage of malaria protein and diphtheria appears to kill all but the slowest-growing tumours, although so far tests have been done only on geneticall­y engineered mice and cancer cells in a test tube.

Pascal Meier, of the Institute of Cancer Research, said that if the results could be repeated then the study would be an important breakthrou­gh.

The next step is to test whether the protein-toxin combinatio­n works in the body. Salanti has formed a company to develop a drug.

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