Malaria-host interaction study unveils broad cancer target strategy
Research aimed at understanding the mechanism by which one form of malaria specifically attacks the placenta in pregnant women has resulted in the discovery of a potential new therapy that could be effective in a wide range of cancers. A large international team – which included scientists from Retrogenix – collaborated in the study, which sparked wide media interest following its publication in the leading journal Cancer Cell.
The malaria parasite, Plasmodium falciparum, can modify red blood cells so that they produce a protein, VAR2CSA, which binds to cells in the placenta. This acts as an anchor, preventing the infected cells from travelling to the spleen where they would be destroyed. This can be life threatening for both mother and foetus.
VAR2CSA anchors via a unique type of chondroitin sulphate (CS) chain known to be expressed in the placenta but not in other tissues. Unexpectedly, the group also detected VAR2CSA binding – and expression of the same distinct CS signature – in a high proportion of tumour samples that were tested. This supports the hypothesis that the CS groups are associated with rapid proliferation, vascularisation and invasion of surrounding tissues – characteristics shared by both placenta and tumour cell types.