Scientists modify breast milk molecule to fight cancer

Scientists at the University of Graz in Austria have discovered that lactoferricin has regressed human cancer cells in rats.

A team of scientists from Austria has been able to modify a molecule derived from a breast milk protein to act as a cancer detector and attack malignant cells in certain types of the disease that are difficult to treat.

The research focuses on lactoferricin, a peptide (a type of molecule) in breast milk that was already known for its antimicrobial properties, according to a statement from the University of Graz in southern Austria on Monday.

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What the researchers at this institution did was to modify this molecule to act as a detector for certain types of cancer that are difficult to treat, such as melanoma and glioblastoma, a type of brain tumor.

This modified lactoferricin is able to localize the negative charge of the phosphatidylserine molecule present on the membrane of cancer cells, adhere to it and cause its death, but without affecting healthy cells.

“The biggest challenge in the development process was finding the right balance between toxicity and specificity. If the peptides are very active, they also attack the healthy cells, “said Dagmar Zweytick and Sabrina Riedl, two of the research team, in the note.

Lactoferricin is a derivative of the lactoferrin protein, which is abundant in breast milk. Lactoferricin is part of the immune system and is one of the first defenses against foreign bodies such as bacteria and fungi.

The use of the substance in the fight against cancer requires a restructuring of its amino acids to achieve the right combination.

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The team at the University of Graz developed 15 variants of lactoferricin over four years of research. Two of these were used in rats to which human cancer cells were transplanted.

The scientists observed an average regression of 85% in the case of melanoma and 50% in glioblastoma, compared to animals not treated with the peptide. In addition, healthy rats treated with this agent were not harmed.

The Zweytick-led team is working on improving this agent and collaborating with a pharmacist in the preparation of clinical trials starting in 2019.