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Could these research projects hold a cure for cancer?

Cancer affects people of all ages, however the risk of a cancer diagnosis increases as we age. One in three Australian men and one in four Australian women will be diagnosed with cancer before the age of 75.

Scientists are investigating if elephants could hold a cure for cancer
Scientists are investigating if elephants could hold a cure for cancer

There are more than 100 types of cancer but the most commonly diagnosed cancers are prostate cancer for men, breast cancer for women, and for both men and women colorectal cancer, melanoma and lung cancer.

The increased knowledge about prevention, early detection and treatment means that more than 66 percent of people diagnosed with cancer today can be effectively treated.

Treatments have improved over the years and researchers around the world are constantly looking for cures for cancer. Some scientists are looking at animals, plants and even mould in their search for answers.

From elephants to malaria, here are a few more unusual research projects with may lead to cures for cancer:

Unlocking elephant genes

Elephants have more in common with us than you realise – they live together as a family, show empathy, grieve for their loved ones, make lifelong bonds and have a similar life expectancy of around 70 years.

However after analysing a large database of elephant deaths, a team headed up by Joshua Schiffman at Huntsman Cancer Institute, at the University of Utah in America, estimates cancer mortality in elephants is less than 5 percent compared to 11 to 25 percent in people, even though they have 100 times more cells than humans.

The team also discovered elephants have 38 additional tumour suppressors in its genes, whereas humans only have two, and elephants may have a more robust mechanism for killing damaged cells at risk of becoming cancerous.

Dr Schiffman suggests if you kill the damaged cell, it’s gone, and it can’t turn into cancer. “This may be more effective of an approach to cancer prevention than trying to stop a mutated cell from dividing and not being able to completely repair itself,” he says.

How does the naked mole-rat keep cancer at bay?

Like the elephant, the naked mole rat exhibits extraordinary resistance to cancer. Living for up to 30 years, it is the longest-lived rodent species and as yet, not a single incident of cancer has been detected in colonies.

Hokkaido University and Keio University in Japan have joined forces to investigate just how exactly these animals are keeping cancer at bay, with the hope of advance treatment options and potentially find solutions for humans.

Malaria protein attacks cancer cells

While searching for a way of protecting pregnant women from malaria, Danish scientists found an unlikely side benefit which may assist in the fight against cancer. The malaria parasite attaches itself to carbohydrates in the placenta in pregnant women. These carbohydrates are identical to the ones found in cancer cells.

Scientists have created the protein that the malaria parasite uses to stick to the placenta and added a toxin. This combination of malaria protein and toxin seeks out the cancer cells, which then absorb the poisoned protein and subsequently die. Compounds for use on humans are currently been developed, with clinical trials expected to start in three to four years’ time.

Killing cancer cells with cheese

Nisin, a naturally occurring food preservative that grows on dairy products such as brie, chedder and camembert cheese, delivers a one-two punch to two of medicine's most lethal maladies: cancer and deadly, antibiotic-resistant bacteria.

Dr Yvonne Kapila, a professor at the University of Michigan School of Dentistry found that feeding rats a ‘nisin milkshake’ killed 70-80 percent of head and neck tumour cells after nine weeks and extended survival.

The next step for Kapila's lab will be to test nisin in a clinic setting. "The application of nisin has advanced beyond its role as a food biopreservative," Dr Kapila says. "Current findings and other published data support nisin's potential use to treat antibiotic resistant infections, periodontal disease and cancer."

Research into traditional Chinese medicine

The Chinese skullcap plant, Scutellaria baicalensis, (or Huang-Qin as it is known in Chinese medicine) is traditionally used as a treatment for fever, liver and lung complaints. However, research on cells cultured in the lab has shown compounds called flavones, found in the plant’s roots can kill human cancers while leaving healthy cells untouched.

In live animal models, these flavones have also halted tumour growth, offering hope that they may one day lead to effective cancer treatments, or even cures.

Lead researcher Professor Cathie Martin of the John Innes Centre says understanding the pathway should help us to produce these special flavones in large quantities, which will enable further research into their potential medicinal uses.


* disclaimer: The information in this article is provided as an information resource only, and is not to be used or relied on for any diagnostic or treatment purposes. This information is not intended to be patient education and should not be used as a substitute for professional diagnosis and treatment. Please consult your health care provider before making any healthcare decisions or for guidance about a specific medical condition.

(TAC 2016)

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