Have researchers really discovered a ‘new miracle drug to cure nine in 10 cancers’? No, but the research is fascinating

October 18, 2015


You may have seen some of the headlines today reporting a new ‘miracle drug’ that could cure nine out of 10 cancers. It sounds amazing, but is it true?

Unfortunately, the answer is no. At least for now. But that’s not to say this isn’t important, promising new research.

The reports centre on the supposedly serendipitous discovery of a link between an experimental malaria vaccine for pregnant women and a molecule that sits on the surface of cancer cells.

So what did the study – published in the journal Cancer Cell – actually show?

What they did

The researchers – based at the University of Copenhagen – had been studying malaria in pregnant women, and the role a particular type of sugar molecule, called chondroitin sulphate, plays in the disease.

They already knew that the molecule, which is found on the surface of cells in the placenta, sticks to a protein – called VAR2CSA – that’s produced by the malaria parasite Plasmodium falciparum. And the team have been working on an experimental vaccine that uses the sticky interaction between chondroitin sulphate and VAR2CSA as a possible way to prevent malaria in pregnant women.

But the latest study behind today’s headlines showed something new – the specialised sugar molecule can also be found on the surface of some cancer cells. So the researchers decided to see if tweaking their experimental malaria vaccine might turn it into something that could kill cancer cells.

To test this, they added a toxin designed to kill cancer cells to the VAR2CSA protein, and added the modified vaccine to cancer cells grown in the lab. They also tested the vaccine by treating mice with prostate cancer, melanoma and a type of lymphoma.

Their experiments showed that the VAR2CSA was able to stick to the chondroitin sulphate on the cancer cells, delivering the deadly toxin that killed the cancer cells, but left healthy cells alone.

It’s exciting stuff. But did this research show that this modified malaria vaccine could be a ‘cure’ for nine in 10 cancers?

The short answer is no. (We think this press release might be where that misleading figure came from).

Not nine in 10

What the researchers actually showed was that in the group of cancer cells they studied – which didn’t include all types of cancer – the majority (95 per cent) of them also produced chondroitin sulphate on their surface.

This means that the malaria vaccine could potentially be used to target these cancers in the future. But not without a lot more research.

This study was done in mice, meaning before this modified malaria vaccine can be used to treat cancer in people we need to understand more about it, and whether it’s safe to be used in humans.

This would also require larger studies to see if the vaccine kills cancer cells in the same way in people, while leaving healthy cells alone and which patients with which cancers could benefit.

Only more research and clinical trials will be able to answer these questions.

So while this certainly is exciting research that could one day help cancer patients in the future, at the moment, it is not a ‘miracle’ drug that will cure nine out of 10 cancers.




  1. Από τα άρθρα που έχω διαβάσει τελευταία είναι το πιο ενδιαφέρον. Το μοναδικό μειονέκτημα ότι θεραπεία θα είναι μάλλον φθηνή.

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