Scientists Are Using Malaria to Detect Cancer

New research reveals that scientists can detect a broad range of cancers using a protein from malaria.

Researchers from the University of Copenhagen discovered this new method of finding cancer. Published in Nature Communications on Thursday, the study explains how this malaria protein has the unique ability to detect early-stage cancer in blood.

"We have developed a method in which we take a blood sample, and with great sensitivity and specificity, we're able to retrieve the individual cancer cells from the blood," professor Ali Salanti, an author on the study, said in a statement. "We catch the cancer cells in greater numbers than existing methods, which offers the opportunity to detect cancer earlier and thus improve outcome."

According to the World Health Organization, cancer is the second leading cause of death in the world, with more than 8.8 million people dying from it each year. Out of all global deaths, one in six is from cancer. While scientists have made many strides in recent decades, much research is still needed to be able to tackle the many types of cancer. This new research will help with the fight with not just one, but multiple types of cancer.

"You can use this method to diagnose broadly, as it's not dependent on cancer type. We have already detected various types of cancer cells in blood samples," Salanti said. "And if there is a cancer cell in your blood, you have a tumor somewhere in your body."

Other methods exist for detecting cancer in the blood, most of which rely on a marker on the surface of tumor cells. Since not all tumor cells display this marker, some cancers can slip through the cracks. Now, the malaria protein VAR2CSA can be used. VAR2CSA sticks to a sugar molecule that's found in over 95 percent of all cancer cells. To test the method, the scientists inserted 10 cancer cells into a blood sample. By using the malaria protein, they were able to retrieve nine out of the 10 cells.

Anopheles Mosquito
An Anopheles stephensi mosquito. A new study explains how a malaria protein has the unique ability to detect early-stage cancer in blood. JIM GATHANY/CDC/REUTERS

"We count the number of cancer cells, and based on that, we're able to make a prognosis. You can, for example, decide to change a given treatment if the number of circulating tumor cells does not change during the treatment the patient is currently undergoing," Mette Ørskov Agerbæk, author of the study, said in a statement.

Using the malaria protein will help with the treatment plan, too. Agerbæk said, "This method also enables us to retrieve live cancer cells, which we can then grow and use for testing treatments in order to determine which type of treatment the patient responds to."