“Extraordinary Finding!”–Malaria Plasmodium Protein (VAR2CSA) Binds to Glycosaminoglycan Sugar Molecule in Placenta; Same Molecule Also Found in Most Cancers; Malaria Parasite Protein May Target Attached Anti-Cancer Drugs to 90% of Cancer Types

Scientists at the University of British Columbia (UBC), Vancouver Coastal Health, and the BC Cancer Agency have discovered a protein from malaria that could one day help stop cancer in its tracks. This new approach, which halted the growth of various tumors in mice, was based on a discovery by collaborators at the University of Copenhagen. While exploring why pregnant women are particularly susceptible to malaria and trying to develop a vaccine to protect the more endangered pregnant women, the Copenhagen researchers found that the mosquito-borne parasite produces a protein (VAR2CSA) that binds to a particular type of sugar molecule (a glycosoaminoglycan) in the placenta. That discovery led to another; that same sugar molecule is also found in most cancers, and yet seemingly not on normal, non-placental tissue in the body. This commonality is understandable, because both cancers and placentas grow rapidly, often pushing aside other tissues in the process. The Copenhagen and Vancouver researchers realized that the sugar molecule could be a target for anti-cancer drugs, and that the malarial VAR2SA protein could provide the tool for carrying such drugs to tumors. "Scientists have spent decades trying to find biochemical similarities between placenta tissue and cancer, but we just didn't have the technology to find it," said project leader Mads Daugaard, Ph.D., an Assistant Professor of Urologic Science at UBC and a Senior Research Scientist at the Vancouver Prostate Centre, part of the Vancouver Coastal Health Research Institute. "When my colleagues discovered how malaria uses VAR2CSA to embed itself in the placenta, we immediately saw its potential to deliver cancer drugs in a precise, controlled way to tumors." To test that theory, Dr. Daugaard and colleagues enlisted the expertise of Dr.
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