Malaria protein could provide a wide range of cancer treatment

Pile of medical books

Malaria protein could give us a broad cancer treatement

Malaria has been a menace in Sub-Saharan Africa and other parts of the world, with about 3.2 billion people at risk of contracting it (World Health Organization, 2015). WHO also states that in 2015, Africa had 89% cases and 91% of malaria deaths. In spite of this, scientist have spent sleepless nights to do more research on malaria and its protein, and found that it could aid in cancer treatment.

Tumor cells, placenta and malaria have something in common; a sugar. Not just any sugar but one that can pave way for development of broad cure effective against ranges of cancer. This discovery was published in a book called Cancer Cell, as a result of collaboration between the University of British Columbia, the University of Copenhagen and BC Cancer Agency, and offers an explanation to observations scientists longed to explain. The World Health Organization (WHO) says that in low transmission settings where women of reproductive age have relatively little acquired immunity to malaria, there is pregnancy associated with malaria. But the scientists were more interested about another possible cause of malaria in pregnancy, which could lead to an incredible solution to cancer.

They discovered that the malaria parasite, Plasmodium falciparum makes infected red blood cells to produce and present a malarial protein called VAR2CSA, which sticks to a type of sugar exclusively found in the placenta, which is also present in tumor cells. It was also interesting to find out that both placental and tumor cells divide rapidly. “Scientists have spent decades trying to find out similarities between placenta tissue and cancer, but we didn’t have technology to find it,’’ study coauthor and project manager Mads Daugaard in a statement. “When my colleagues discovered how malaria uses VAR2CSA to embed itself in the placenta, we immediately saw its potential to deliver cancer drugs in a precise controlled way to tumors.”

The researchers also tested the protein against normal and cancer cells and encouragingly, the drug displayed specificity to cancer cells only. They saw it kill up to 95% of the cancer cells lines investigated including brain, blood, prostate and breast. This was done in a culture dish, but they went further and tested it in mice, which gave an impressive result. Another two companies in the world are already working towards developing a compound suitable for trials in humans.

There is some irony that a disease destructive as malaria can be exploited to treat another dreaded disease. Should this work, it would be easier to treat multiple cancers using a single drug. The long term effect will be cheap and safer chemotherapy.

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