A malaria protein is the key player in a new protein-drug complex that specifically zeroes in on malignant tumors — and only tumors — during chemotherapy treatments for patients.
The new protein-drug complex (aka the binding of plasma injected with medicinal drugs to an unbound protein) only attaches to complex sugar molecules that are almost exclusively only found in cancerous cells and placenta, which means that scientists don't have to worry about directing their cancer-erasing weapon of destruction toward a target or pumping a patient with more drugs to counteract negative side effects.
While chemo is one of the go-to medical therapies for a variety of different types of cancer, one of the biggest problems with the treatments is its inability to distinguish cancerous cells from healthy cells; subsequently, the cure also becomes part of the problem if chemo depletes cells faster than a cancer patient's body can replenish them, which compromises the immune system to a dangerous degree. Even though supplementary medicines can aid in blocking the repletion of cells and/or building them back up, chemo can still have side effects that outlast a survivor's cancer, like heart damage and infertility (not to mention the litany of uncomfortable or distressing short-term effects a patient can expect, like fatigue, nausea, hair loss and nerve and muscle problems).
Why these complex sugar molecules in particular? Turns out that, as a whole, complex sugar molecules on both healthy or cancerous cells contain more information about the cell than actual DNA; the makeup of the average cancer cell is uniquely branded by the complex sugar molecules imbued within in — which means it also sports a readily-identifiable marker.
Even though the source material for the drug-protein complex might seem a bit unusual, like-minded therapy sources are a lot more common in the medical community than the average person would think — for instance, the Food and Drug Administration approved of the first viral therapy for cancer treatment derived from the herpes simplex virus, which can manifest as the STI genital herpes, less than two weeks ago.
There is a downside: the protein-drug complex therapy has only been tested on mice, and the results from animal-tested experiments don't always cleanly translate when it comes to humans. Still, it's a hopeful step in the right direction.
Photo: NIAID | Flickr