Could the Malaria Vaccine Be Used to Fight Cancer?

While examining options for malaria vaccination in pregnant women, researchers unexpectedly uncovered evidence that a malaria protein can be used to attack and kill tumors, leading to a potential future weapon against cancer.

Researchers made their discovery while attempting to create a viable, safe method for delivering the malaria vaccine to pregnant women. They found that a particular carbohydrate found within the placenta that malaria proteins attach to and is responsible for ensuring fast growth, is identical to a carbohydrate found within tumor cells.

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“For decades, scientists have been searching for similarities between the growth of a placenta and a tumor. The placenta is an organ, which within a few months grows from only few cells into an organ weighing approx. two pounds, and it provides the embryo with oxygen and nourishment in a relatively foreign environment. In a manner of speaking, tumors do much the same, they grow aggressively in a relatively foreign environment,” researchers wrote.

After making their discovery, researchers recreated the protein in the laboratory, adding a toxin that, once absorbed, kills cancer cells from the inside.

Overall, after testing thousands of samples of various cancers, researchers found that the malaria protein successfully attacks more than 90% of all tumors. In mice models of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, tumor size in the treated group was roughly 25% of the tumors in the control group. In prostate cancer, tumors disappeared entirely in 2 of the 6 mice treated within 1 month of the first dose. In metastatic bone cancer, 5 of the 6 treated mice were alive after 8 weeks, compared with none of the control mice.

“It appears that the malaria protein attaches itself to the tumor without any significant attachment to other tissue. We have seen that three doses can arrest growth in a tumor and even make it shrink,” researchers concluded.

“The earliest possible test scenario is in four years time. The biggest questions are whether it’ll work in the human body, and if the human body can tolerate the doses needed without developing side effects. But we’re optimistic because the protein appears to only attach itself to a carbohydrate that is only found in the placenta and in cancer tumors in humans.”

—Michael Potts


University of Copenhagen. Malaria vaccine provides hope for a general cure for cancer [press release]. October 13, 2015.