Malaria protein fights bladder cancer cells: UBC research

VANCOUVER (NEWS 1130) – Malaria isn’t usually known for its healing properties, but new research out of the University of British Columbia shows it could help cancer patients who don’t respond to chemotherapy.

A protein from the malaria parasite called VAR2CSA binds to a sugar molecule found only in the placenta of pregnant animals and cancer tumours. A drug derived from the protein has been delivered directly to the tumours in mice, and researchers have found it stopped tumour growth of chemotherapy-resistant bladder cancer.

“It’s quite beautiful that you can use a protein from as devastating a disease as malaria and actually use it for something that can help a lot of patients in a different disease,” UBC assistant professor of urologic science Dr. Mads Daugaard says.

The unlikely disease pairing came after Daugaard received a call from a friend and fellow researcher who explained he had found out what sugar malaria attacks in a baby’s placenta. Daugaard realized, tumours in bladder cancer have the same sugar.

The hypothesis was confirmed in a lab and tests continued. During the latest round of testing, 80 per cent of the treated mice were alive after 70 days while all the other animals, in three different control groups, died of bladder cancer-related complications.

Bladder cancer is the fifth most common cancer in the western world and there is only one line of chemotherapy for invasive bladder cancer.

“Currently we are looking at high-risk pediatric cancer indications, prostate cancer and a rare type of lung cancer we believe we could target,” Daugaard says.

He says the next step is to design a process to produce the VAR2CSA drug combination on a larger scale to begin human clinical trials within the next three years.

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