Researchers from Denmark and Canada have discovered that a malarial protein can be used for targeted drug delivery against cancerous tumors because it naturally targets and binds to a molecule in the placenta that also happens to be expressed in lung cancer and melanoma.
The malarial protein, dubbed VAR2CSA, binds to carbohydrate residues called chondroitin sulfate in order to help facilitate the growth of the infectious malarial parasite Plasmodium falciparum. Chondroitin sulfate is found in the placenta, explaining why pregnant women are especially vulnerable to malaria.
Once the team from the University of Copenhagen and University of British Columbia uncovered the role of VAR2SCA in malaria, they quickly realized that it could be useful in the fight against cancer.
"Scientists have spent decades trying to find biochemical similarities between placenta tissue and cancer, but we just didn't have the technology to find it," researcher Mads Daugaar, assistant professor of urologic science at the University of British Columbia told Genetic Engineering & Biotechnology News. "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."
In a paper in the journal Cancer Cell the researchers describe how the protein targeted to tumors that exhibited chondroitin sulfate in lab experiments, and inhibited cell growth and metastasis when linked to anticancer agents like diphtheria toxin or the microtubule inhibitor hemiasterlin.
Lead author, Ali Salanti, professor of immunology and microbiology at the University of Copenhagen's Centre for Medical Parasitology, commented in Genetic Engineering & Biotechnology News that "there is some irony that a disease as destructive as malaria might be exploited to treat another dreaded disease."