A medical breakthrough was discovered by Danish and Canadian scientists while hunting for a vaccine against the killer disease, malaria.

Malaria proteins show promise in killing cancer cells, they announced on Tuesday, Oct. 13.

Researchers from the University of Copenhagen and the University of British Columbia were in the middle of a study to develop a vaccine for malaria in pregnant women. They found out that armed malaria proteins can actually kill nine out of 10 types of cancer cells.

Professor Ali Salanti from the Department of Immunology and Microbiology at the University of Copenhagen worked with cancer researcher Mads Daugaard from the University of British Columbia. While they were analyzing why pregnant women were more vulnerable to malaria infection, they found out that the potentially fatal parasite produces a type of protein called VAR2CSA, which attaches to a distinct type of sugar molecule, chondroitin sulfate (CS), expressed in the placenta.

Placenta and cancer cells are mostly alike in terms of growth rate and the ability to push surrounding tissues as they grow bigger. The researchers found that their vaccine against malaria could potentially kill cancer cells too.

The scientists asked for the assistance of John Babcook from The Centre for Drug Research and Development (CDRD) to be able to attach a toxin to the malaria protein. They tested their weapon on hundreds of cancer cell samples implanted in laboratory mice. It attacked 95 percent of cancer cells. The findings were published in Cancer Cell.

"There is some irony that a disease as destructive as malaria might be exploited to treat another dreaded disease," Salanti said.

Other cancer treatments attack both normal cells and cancer cells. In their discovery, the mice did not exhibit any adverse effects and the healthy organs or tissues were spared by the treatment.

"This is an extraordinary finding that paves the way for targeting sugar molecules in pediatric and adulthood human cancer," said Poul Sorensen, a UBC professor of Pathology and Laboratory Medicine and the study's co-investigator.

The researchers, along with two pharmaceutical companies, are planning to conduct clinical trials in humans in three to four years.

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