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30th January 2015

Dinner conversation with 8 year old leads to cancer breakthrough

An informal chat between a Manchester cancer research scientist and his young daughter has led to the discovery that simple antibiotics could be used to treat cancer
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An eight-year-old girl may have inadvertently come up with a cure for cancer whilst talking to her parents over dinner.

Camilla Lisanti was asked by her father, Professor Michael Lisanti of the University of Manchester, how she would cure cancer. She responded by suggesting that her parents—both of whom work in cancer research—treat it with antibiotics, as is the norm for many other illnesses.

Despite initial scepticism on the basis that cancer is not a bacterial infection, her father decided to test this out in the lab and was astonished to see that the proposal worked.

Professor Lisanti, who is the Director of the Breakthrough Breast Cancer Unit, had previously suspected that antibiotics could have some sort of effect on mitochondria, but credited this conversation with providing the inspiration to test the theory.

He said, “I knew that antibiotics can affect mitochondria and I’ve been doing a lot of work recently on how important they are to the growth of tumours, but this conversation helped me to make a direct link.”

Mitochondria are the powerhouses for all animal and plant cells and provide energy for stem cells to mutate and divide, resulting in cancerous tumours. The stem cells also maintain these tumours.

Normally, antibiotics are used specifically to kill or inhibit the growth of bacteria. However, since mitochondria are believed to be descended from early forms of bacteria, they are also affected by antibiotics, although not to the extent that the recipient’s life is endangered.

Professor Lisanti tested this by using five different antibiotics on the cell lines of eight types of tumour. The results were astounding: Four of the antibiotics destroyed the cancerous stem cells in all eight of the tumours.

Crucially, the tests had no effect on ordinary, healthy cells. The antibiotics have long been approved for use in humans, slashing the cost of trials of new treatments as well as saving time.

Professor Lisanti added: “This research makes a strong case for opening new trials in humans for using antibiotics to fight cancer. Many of the drugs we used were extremely effective, there was little or no damage to normal cells and these antibiotics have been in use for decades and are already approved by the FDA for use in humans.

“However, of course, further studies are needed to validate their efficacy, especially in combination with more conventional therapies.”

Dr Matthew Lam, Senior Research Officer at Breakthrough Breast Cancer, said: “The conclusions that the researchers have drawn, whilst just hypotheses at this stage, are certainly interesting. Antibiotics are cheap and readily available and if in time the link between their use and the eradication of cancer stem cells can be proved, this work may be the first step towards a new avenue for cancer treatment.

“This is a perfect example of why it is so important to continue to invest in scientific research. Sometimes there are answers to some of the biggest questions right in front of us but without ongoing commitment to the search for these answers, we’d never find them.”

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