A chemical found only in breast milk can break tumours into tiny fragments that cancer patients can pass in their urine, research suggests.
The milk sugar alpha1H, which is essential to a baby’s development, has been shown to destroy tumours without harming healthy tissue.
One study found 20 bladder cancer sufferers excreted tumour fragments in their urine after just six infusions of alpha1H.
Further research suggests patients start to pass malignant tissue within two hours of treatment.
When alpha1H binds to the fat oleic acid, they form a ‘tumoricidal’ complex that triggers cancerous cells into ‘suicide’.
Researchers from the Czech Republic hope this could be a ‘gentler’ form of chemo, with conventional treatments ‘poisoning’ cells and causing nasty side effects.
The drug manufacturer Hamlet Pharma Ltd plans to test if the chemical shrinks bladder tumours and improves patient survival.
The research has been carried out by Motol University Hospital in Prague and was overseen by Professor Catharina Svanborg, who founded Hamlet Pharma Ltd.
Professor Svanborg accidentally discovered alpha1H kills tumour cells while at Lund University, Sweden, in 1995.
She was looking at how breast milk fights germs. It is common practice to do this on human cancer cells because they behave differently to other cells and can survive laboratory conditions, South China Morning Post reported.
Professor Svanborg was amazed to discover the cancer cells were disappearing.
Bladder cancer is the 10th most common form of the disease in the UK, with more than 10,300 people being diagnosed every year, according to Action Bladder Cancer UK.
And in the US, around 80,470 people are expected to develop bladder cancer in 2019, according to the National Cancer Institute.
One study saw 40 bladder-cancer patients with hard-to-treat tumours being given alpha1H or placebo during six infusions over 22 days.
All 20 patients who received the breast milk chemical passed tumour fragments in their urine.
Another trial saw nine bladder cancer patients being given five daily doses of alpha1H in the week before surgery to remove their tumours.
Eight of the nine patients passed tumour cells in just two hours, with the malignant masses also becoming smaller or less aggressive.
Unlike conventional chemo, there was also no damage to healthy tissue.
Mats Persson, CEO of Hamlet Pharma Ltd, said: ‘We need more evidence but hopefully this could be the gentle chemotherapy of the future.’
Professor Svanborg added: ‘We believe the treatment points to new ways of reaching a balance between therapeutic efficacy and side effects.’
The chemical’s apparent gentleness means it could be used as a preventative drug in at-risk patients, she said.
The research team also plan to investigate the drug in brain and colon cancer.
Professor Svanborg claims alpha1H caused ‘tumour disappearance’ in mice.
Professor Dorothy Bennett, director of the molecular and clinical sciences research institute at St George’s, University of London, argued HAMLET has been used as far back as 2004 when a study looked at it in warts.
She questioned whether a 40-patient trial is sufficient to show a drug is effective.
‘The researchers report some tumour cell death and shedding of cells or tumour fragments from the bladder cancer into the urine,’ she said.
‘However, no measure of statistical significance for the difference between treated and control is given.
‘Note also no actual clinical outcomes are presented, such as improved survival or time in remission.’
Professor Bennett added HAMLET may not be completely ‘non toxic’, with apoptosis causing inflammation.
Bladder cancer can be tricky to treat. A trans urethral resection is typically the go-to for early stages of the disease.
This involves a surgeon removing a tumour via the urethra.
Patients may also be treated with the live bacteria Bacillus Calmette-Guerin (BCG).
BCG is put directly into the bladder where it ‘turns on’ the immune system.
Immune cells are then attracted to the organ and attack the tumour.
Up to a third of patients do not respond to BCG at all, with many then being forced to have their entire bladder removed, statistics show.
And another third suffer side effects. These can be serious, and include bladder infection, anaemia and kidney problems.
There is also a worldwide shortage of BCG, which further adds to the need for new treatments.
21 July 2019