We’ve heard it before, but rarely this brashly: scientists may have discovered the key to defeating cancer.
That’s not to say that cancer has been cured. Rather, researchers at Israel’s Accelerated Evolution Biotechnologies, Ltd. (AEBi) have developed a multi-pronged technique that they claim attacks cancer cells more quickly than they can defend themselves while leaving healthy cells unaffected.
The therapy—multi-target toxin, or MuTaTo—is based on the cell-disrupting ability of short chains of amino acids called peptides. In controlled tests, peptides have shown a promising ability to inhibit some of the very factors, such as defences against cell death, that make cancer so difficult to defeat.
Peptides have been used to treat medical conditions since the most famous peptide therapy, insulin, was introduced nearly a century ago. But the pharmaceutical use of cancer-fighting peptides has so far been severely limited. Peptides are so small and so difficult to direct that they are only beneficial in a narrow range of cases, mostly when they supplement naturally occurring peptides acting as hormones. Although some peptides have been shown in laboratory settings to be effective against cancer cells, getting them into targeted cells has been a much bigger challenge.
AEBi claims to have met that challenge by introducing peptides into oncolytic viruses—viruses that attack cancer cells. Alone, oncolytic viruses often act too slowly to circumvent cancer cells’ natural defences and tend to attack cells in such specific locations that the damage they wreak is often repaired, leaving cancer cells primed with a heightened immune response.
The new approach stacks several different types of cancer-fighting peptides into each oncolytic virus, which serves as a highly focused delivery vehicle. In an interview with the Jerusalem Post, AEBi CEO Dr Ilan Morad compares this approach to the cocktail of drugs that have turned HIV from a death sentence to a manageable disease: instead of giving targeted cells an opportunity to respond to a single point of attack, these therapies disrupt cells at multiple key areas. A strong toxin, also based on peptides, rounds out the new treatment.
On the strength of an exploratory experiment on laboratory mice, AEBi officials are jubilant. “Our cancer cure will be effective from day one,” claims AEBi chairman Dan Aridor. But others in the scientific community advise restraint.
“It’s highly unlikely that a company has developed something that is going to cure all cancers within a year. I mean, it’s just not plausible,” said Dr Benjamin Neel, Director of the Perlmutter Cancer Center, in an interview with ABC. “It’s really unfair and almost cruel to bandy about these likely-to-be-false hopes.”
Perhaps the greatest reason for scepticism comes directly from AEBi itself. In an interview with The Times of Israel, Morad admits that the company has chosen not to publish its findings in research or medical journal, citing the high cost of publication. While an increasing number of pay-to-publish academic journals pollute the research landscape, legitimate journals do not charge authors to publish their findings. Nor would the experiments necessary to support AEBi’s claims seem out of place. In the same interview, Morad notes that the company, which is funded by private investors, has filed patent applications covering the new process.