A new treatment that works on the molecular level in a fashion similar to a baseball glove could be the next breakthrough in the fight against two deadly cancers.
Researchers at Stanford University School of Medicine in California said they have developed a tiny receptor that prevents a key cancer-causing molecule from bonding with an important receptor on human cells.
The findings were published recently in The Journal of Clinical Investigation.
The research focused on mice with pancreatic and ovarian cancers.
Human trials are scheduled to begin in 2018 and researchers are optimistic.
“We are confident there will be therapeutic effects,” Amato Giaccia, Ph.D., a professor of radiation oncology at Stanford, and lead author of the study, told Healthline.
Attracting a molecule
The Stanford researchers developed their microscopic receptor in a half circle shape much like a baseball glove.
Their receptor attracts and then “catches” a cancer-causing molecule known as Gas6 and prevents it from binding to a natural receptor known as Axl.
In many forms of cancer, Axl is “over expressed” and bonds strongly with Gas6. This makes it difficult to treat once the bonding has occurred.
Giaccia said their receptor can be used on its own or in combination with current treatments. He added it can also be used beforehand to prevent Gas6 and Axl from bonding, or it can be used afterward to pull the two apart.
Without this natural bonding, cancer cells started releasing DNA-damaging molecules, causing the cells to die.
In their experiment, the Stanford researchers said their receptor, known as MYD1-72, reduced tumor burden by 95 percent when used alone in treating ovarian cancer.
When they combined MYD1-72 with the DNA-damaging agent doxorubicin, most of the mice ended up with almost complete tumor reduction.
In mice with pancreatic cancer, MYD1-72 had no impact on tumor burden. However, when used in conjunction with the DNA-damaging agent gemcitabine, there was a three times higher survival rate than mice not receiving any treatment.
“We were even able to get some animals cured, even those that started out with widespread and aggressive metastatic disease,” Giaccia said in a prepared release.
Less toxic, more effective
Current treatments for ovarian and pancreatic cancers are limited and usually require a combination of surgery, radiation, and chemotherapy.
These treatments can have toxic side effects and don’t always lead to a cure, the researchers said.
Dr. Oscar Joe Hines, chief of the division of general surgery at the Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center, told Healthline he was impressed with the Stanford research.
“It’s an interesting line of investigation,” said Hines, who specializes in pancreatic cancer.
Hines said ovarian and pancreatic cancers can be difficult to diagnose and to treat. He said pancreatic cancer treatment still relies on older chemotherapy drugs and the field is 15 to 20 years behind other cancer specialties.
Survival rates for pancreatic cancer many times are less than a year.
Hines said the idea of attacking pancreatic cancer cells before they start fully developing makes sense.
“This type of treatment could augment what is currently available,” Hines said.
Beyond the upcoming human trials, the Stanford researchers want to explore whether their receptor has an effect on other types of cancer.
Giaccia and Dr. Albert Koong, a professor of radiation oncology at Stanford and a study author, have formed a company, Aravive Biologics, that has licensed the patent for the MYD1-72 receptor.