In December, Nobel Prize winner James Allison, who helped develop immunotherapy, said: ‘Soon we’ll get close with some cancers,’ citing progress against some forms including melanoma. But, ‘the world will never be cancer-free.’
Today, Accelerated Evolution Biotechnologies Ltd in Israel claims to have proved him wrong, using a web of small protein fragments called peptides which can wrap around cancer cells like an octopus, attacking tumors from multiple angles and reaching areas that other treatment molecules are too big to get to.
They say the peptides are so delicate that they should fly under the immune system’s radar, preventing counter attacks from the tumor and side effects like nausea and ‘chemo brain’.
Critics say the method is promising and not unheard-of but claims of a ‘cure’ are wildly overstated, since the only study was performed in mice, nobody has seen the results of that study, and even the inventors admit human trials will take years to start and complete.
What’s more, it’s improbable that we will ever develop one singular cure for all cancers, which vary widely.
Peptides have long been considered for cancer care, and many scientists are working on similar approaches, But claims of a ‘cure’ are overstretched because they have only conducted a ‘first exploratory trial in mice’ and some tests in petri dishes
‘It goes without saying, we all share the aspirational hope that they are correct,’ Len Lichtenfeld, MD, chief medical officer of the ACS, told DailyMail.com in an email, and since published on his blog.
‘Unfortunately, we must be aware that this is far from proven as an effective treatment for people with cancer, let alone a cure.’
The researchers have not published data to back up their claim that this is the most promising treatment to date. The only words published on their ‘exploratory experiment in mice’ is an interview they gave to local paper The Jerusalem Post, claiming success.
That is not enough to warrant excitement or even intrigue, says Dr Vince Luca, assistant professor of Cancer Biology at Moffitt Cancer Center.
‘Peptides are a rapidly growing class of therapeutics, yet very few peptide-based drugs have received FDA approval for oncology indications,’ Dr Luca told DailyMail.com.
‘The Israeli scientists’ reports of a “universal cancer cure” have not been substantiated through publications in peer-reviewed articles, nor have they been demonstrated in human clinical trials, and their claims should be met with extreme skepticism.’
That’s not to say it couldn’t work as a treatment in some capacity.
But Dr Lichtenfeld warns there is a big difference between finding a treatment with potential and making it work.
‘Our hopes are always on the side of new breakthroughs in the diagnosis and treatment of cancer,’ Dr Lichtenfeld said.
‘We are living in an era where many exciting advances are impacting the care of patients with cancer. We hope that this approach also bears fruit and is successful.
‘At the same time, we must always offer a note of caution that the process to get this treatment from mouse to man is not always a simple and uncomplicated journey.
‘As experience has taught us so many times, the gap from a successful mouse experiment to effective, beneficial application of exciting laboratory concepts to helping cancer patients at the bedside is in fact a long and treacherous journey, filled with unforeseen and unanticipated obstacles.’
PEPTIDES ARE PROMISING FOR CANCER CARE – BUT SCIENTISTS ARE STILL STRUGGLING TO MAKE THEM WORK THIS WAY
Even despite the huge gains made in cancer treatment innovation, we are still far off eliminating the disease, with more than 18 million new cases a year and 8.2 million deaths.
Immunotherapy is the new wonder treatment, winning the Nobel Prize last year, as it trains the patient’s immune system to fight cancer itself, getting around the issues of the patient’s immune system reacting to drugs.
But that is expensive, still being rolled out into mainstream care, and even the inventors, James Allison of the US and Tasuku Honjo of Japan, would not market it as a cure.
Aside from that, there have been steps to more directly deliver drugs like chemotherapy to the tumor to prevent arduous and sometimes excruciating side effects.
Currently, the top FDA-approved method to do that is with antibodies, which have been perfect vehicles for delivering targeted drugs.
However, the antibody molecules are often too big to reach the brain for brain tumors. And antibodies have a tendency to bind to parts of the immune system that can have toxic effects on the liver and bone marrow.
Peptides, amino acids connected in a chain, have been held up as a perfect alternative. They are cheap to make and regulate, are less likely to cause side effects, and they can effectively home in on specific sites without affecting surrounding areas.
Three peptides are already used to treat elements of cancer – mainly targeting hormones that feed tumors, while other drugs do the tumor-killing.
However, many see the potential in peptides to one day do everything in a multi-pronged attack – and that is what the Israeli team claim to have achieved.
The big problem with peptides, according to a study published last year, is that they are often too delicate to be a match for tumors, and they have short half-lives, meaning they don’t have the stamina to deliver a sustained attack on tumors.
Attempts have been made to extend their half life and strengthen them, but thus far to no avail.
‘My colleagues here at ACS tell me phage or peptide display techniques, while very powerful research tools for selecting high affinity binders, have had a difficult road as potential drugs,’ Dr Lichtenfeld said.
‘If [the Israeli group] is just beginning clinical trials, they have some tough experiments ahead.’
WHAT IS DIFFERENT ABOUT THE ISRAELI TEAM’S ATTEMPTS – AND WHAT ARE THE CAVEATS?
Accelerated Evolution Biotechnologies Ltd (AEBi) has not conducted any human clinical trials, and has only completed one study on mice, according to their profile in the Jerusalem Post.
That is far from what is needed to establish a worthy treatment, let alone a cure.
As a result, most cancer experts will dismiss the study as, at best, a work in progress.
Claims of a cure are, at best, an overstretch.
However, the methods do build on research into peptides for cancer care, and deliver some fresh ideas on how they could be made stronger.
CEO Dr Ilan Morad compared the method, which he calls MuTaTo (multi-target toxin), to the drug cocktails used to target the AIDS virus from multiple angles at the same time.
He says the delicate chain of just 12 amino acids at a time would consist of ‘several cancer-targeting peptides for each cancer cell at the same time’ and would contain ‘a strong peptide toxin that would kill cancer cells specifically.’
‘The probability of having multiple mutations that would modify all targeted receptors simultaneously decreases dramatically with the number of targets used,’ Morad said.
‘Instead of attacking receptors one at a time, we attack receptors three at a time – not even cancer can mutate three receptors at the same time.’
COULD THIS TREATMENT EVEN REACH CLINICS WITHIN A YEAR?
There are many elements to complete, that are a tall order for a 12-month schedule.
First, AEBi says it is trying to patent specific peptide structures.
Second, they are aiming to conduct human trials which, they say, will take a few years. Thus far, they have conducted petri dish tests and their ‘first exploratory mice experiment’.
Third, the aim is for the treatment to be personalized, taking biopsies from the patients to work out which receptors need targeting. That will take time to craft.
Dan Aridor, chairman of the board of AEBi, insisted their results are ‘consistent and repeatable’, adding: ‘We believe we will offer in a year’s time a complete cure for cancer.
‘Our cancer cure will be effective from day one, will last a duration of a few weeks and will have no or minimal side-effects at a much lower cost than most other treatments on the market.’
But Dr Lichtenfield warned readers should take the claims with a sizeable pinch of salt.
It is hardly the first time a team has said the same.
He recommends a ‘well-established program of experiments’ to ‘better define how this works – and may not work – as it moves from the laboratory bench to the clinic.’
‘It will likely take some time to prove the benefit of this new approach to the treatment of cancer,’ he explains. ‘And unfortunately – based on other similar claims of breakthrough technologies for the treatment of cancer – the odds are that it won’t be successful.’
WE PROBABLY WON’T EVER DEVELOP ONE SINGLE CANCER CURE
More importantly, it’s unlikely cancer will ever be cured with one silver bullet given the myriad of different types of tumors, locations and diseases.
‘There’s lot of things we can’t control,’ Dr Shelley S Tworoger, associate director of the Population Science division at Moffitt Cancer Center, explained to DailyMail.com in an interview last month.
Many types of cancer could be prevented with lifestyle changes, Dr Tworoger said, such as ‘stopping smoking, improving diet, more physical activity, better weight control, and HPV vaccines.’
That could allow us to push the preventable types ‘off the table’ and focus resources on other types.
One day we may be able to better control cancer, and perhaps reach a point where they become similar to a chronic disease, like HIV.
But one pill to nip them all in the bud like antibiotics – as this Israeli team envision – is improbable.