Foot and mouth disease could be the key to treating the world’s deadliest cancer, according to new research.
The virus is home to a protein that kills pancreatic cancer cells, British scientists have discovered.
It could lead to new therapies for a form of the disease that has the worst survival rates. Only one in twenty patients are alive five years after diagnosis.
Nearly two decades ago foot-and-mouth disease led to the culling of millions of farm animals and the United Kingdom lost billions of pounds.
It now appears that the way by which cattle are infected could also be the way to cure cancer.
The revolutionary study identified a peptide, or protein fragment, in the virus that affects ‘v’ 6, a molecule found on the surface of pancreatic cancer cells.
In the experiments on mice it was used to transport a highly potent drug called tesirin to tumors – which were completely destroyed.
Lead author, Professor John Marshall, of the Barts Cancer Institute, Queen Mary, University of London, said: “The foot-and-mouth disease virus uses” v “6 as a way to infect livestock, as the virus binds to this cow tongue protein.
“By testing pieces of protein in the virus that binds to ‘v’ 6, we developed a pathway to provide a specific drug for pancreatic cancers.
“Our previous research had shown that 84% of patients with pancreatic cancer have high levels of ‘v’ 6 in their tumors.”
The tests, described in the journal Theranostics, were conducted on laboratory-grown cells and living mice.
Genetically identical human tumor cells were used, with and without “v” 6. The former were most affected when exposed to the peptide and drug combination. The latter needed much higher doses to be killed.
Rodent tests have yielded the most impressive results. Mice with ‘v’ 6 positive tumors only needed a small amount three times a week. This prevented the complete growth of tumors.
When the dose was increased and administered only twice a week, all these tumors disappeared.
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Professor Marshall said: “These very exciting results, which are the result of many years of laboratory testing, offer a completely new way of treating pancreatic cancer.
“An advantage of targeting ‘v’ 6 is that it is very specific for cancer, because most normal human tissues have little or none of this protein.
“So let’s hope that if we could turn it into an effective treatment for pancreatic cancer, it would have limited side effects.”
His team, supported by the Pancreatic Cancer Research Fund, is working with Spirogen, now part of AstraZeneca and ADC Therapeutics.
They now plan to further test the treatment in more complex mouse models to see if it can stop the spread of pancreatic cancer. They therefore hope to switch to clinical trials.
Dr Emily Farthing, senior information information research at Cancer Research UK, said: “Although we have made great progress in treating many types of cancer, survival remains stubbornly low for people with pancreatic cancer and there is an urgent need more effective treatments.
“This early stage research has developed a promising new drug that reduces pancreatic cancer growth in the laboratory.
“And with further research to see if it is safe and effective for patients, we hope that one day it will offer new hope for people with this disease.”
Pancreatic cancer is often diagnosed late because early symptoms can be nonspecific in its early stages and are often mistaken for other, less lethal conditions.
These include abdominal and lower back pain, jaundice, indigestion, pale or loose, oily stools, loss of appetite and new-onset diabetes not caused by weight gain.
Few treatment options exist for patients with pancreatic cancer and the cancer will become resistant to chemotherapy.
Pancreatic cancer affects 9,100 people in the United Kingdom and 56,770 in the United States each year. A quarter of the patients with the disease die within a month of diagnosis and three quarters within a year.
In 2001, a foot-and-mouth disease outbreak in the United Kingdom resulted in the slaughter of over six million sheep, cattle and pigs.
The virus causes painful blisters inside the mouth and under the hooves and can cause lameness and feeding problems. It rarely affects humans, its sheer contagiousness among animals has prompted enormous killing.
It took nine months to control foot and mouth disease, costing £ 3 billion in the UK public sector and £ 5 billion in the private sector.
It was last seen in the UK in 1967. But the policies in place failed to keep up with changes in agriculture.
The animals now moved over much greater distances before ending up as meat in stores, which allowed the virus to spread quickly.