Malaria has always been the centre of attention for Dr Ali Salanti’s, a molecular parasitologist and an ERC grantee. With his studies, he hoped to bring new insight into pregnancy-associated malaria, to save the lives of women and their babies in areas affected by the disease. Now, Dr Salanti’s research has shifted to battling against another deadly disease: cancer. This comes after an unexpected discovery yielded ground-breaking results for the diagnosis and treatment of this illness. This is the kind of curiosity-driven research that can lead to ground-breaking serendipitous outcomes.
The host-parasite relationship has always fascinated parasitologists and evolutionary biologists. Thanks to simple mechanisms developed over millions of years, the two are intimately competing in an arms race for the most effective measures and counter-measures. This relationship is sophisticated and precise, but it can also prove deadly. Malaria parasites make no exception, having adapted to find ways to enter the human body despite its immune system.
Dr Ali Salanti, from the University of Copenhagen, was originally studying one of these adaptation mechanisms: a protein, VAR2CSA, which allows the parasite to adhere to the placenta. This is a mechanism that has evolved to avoid circulation within the blood stream, which eventually would result in the destruction of the parasite by the immune system. VAR2CSA expressed by the malaria parasite allows it to bind specific carbohydrate receptors that are only found in the placenta and nowhere else in the human body.
It came as a surprise to Dr Salanti to find that the carbohydrate receptor in the placenta that binds the malaria protein is also present in cancer cells, where it is involved in establishing tumours in healthy tissues. The biological role of this molecule, exclusively present in these types of tissue, is apparently to mediate rapid cell growth and cellular migration, key features for both the development of a new life and the success of the tumour.
Now, taking advantage of his discovery, Dr Salanti is using his ERC grant to develop a new treatment for cancer. He has engineered a drug containing the protein, which targets malignant cells, and a toxin that is able to destroy them. This prototype medicine has already showed very positive results in preliminary tests on mice and culture cells. The drug appears to affect around 90% of tumours, including common types such as brain cancer, metastatic bone cancer, breast cancer, non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma and prostate cancer.
However, questions remain about the treatment with regard to humans and its applications, which may include diagnostic tools. Will it work on different types of cancer, other than those used in tests so far? The project’s next step will be the clinical trials on humans, and Dr Salanti and his team are hard at work to prepare for this important milestone. The biggest issue they will face is the dosage of the new drug: will it prove too invasive for human patients? Nevertheless, because the drug does not affect healthy tissues, and is identical in humans and animals, the team remains optimistic about what the future holds.