Two Indian-origin medical scientists at Deakin University, Australia, along with their team, have announced a breakthrough in prostate cancer treatment. Dr Rupinder Kanwar and her husband, Professor Jagat Kanwar, along with two others, have revealed that piggybacking a chemotherapy drug onto a well-known milk protein could create a combination that is lethal for cancer cells without toxic side-effects. Their research has been featured in Scientific Reports, an online open access journal published by Nature, a British interdisciplinary scientific journal.

When coupled with the milk protein lactoferrin, Doxorubicin (Dox, the drug currently in use) can be delivered directly into the nucleus of prostate cancer cells, which kills the cells as well as drug resistant cancer stem cells, without any side-effects. Dr Rupinder Kanwar, a senior research fellow with the Deakin Medical School’s Centre for Molecular and Medical Research, said, “Dox is used widely for treating several types of cancers and known for causing toxicity to heart, brain, kidneys, leading to cardiac arrest/heart failure.”

According to her, prostate cancer is one of the few cancers where chemotherapy is not the primary treatment. This is because these particular cancer cells are able to flush out the drug and become resistant to it, while the administered Dox continues to kill the body’s normal cells, resulting in a range of side effects, the most damaging of which is heart failure.

“With this latest study, we have shown that by coupling Dox with lactoferrin, cancer cells take in the drug rather than pump it straight out,” Dr Rupinder added.

Lactoferrin is an iron-binding protein found in cow milk and human milk. It is known for its immune boosting and antimicrobial properties that are important for protection against infection. It is also added as a key ingredient in baby formula. Funded by the Australia-India Strategic Research Fund (AISRF), the previous work by Prof Jagat Kanwar and Dr Rupinder Kanwar and their team with other types of cancer found that lactoferrin is not digested by the gut enzymes when fully saturated with iron and given as smart nano-capsules.

Prof Jagat Kanwar said, “This latest study builds on this previous work, whereby to target toxicity and drug resistance, we coupled the Dox with lactoferrin, which was then fed to a particular breed of mice that naturally develop prostate cancer. The rate of recovery in mice studied was 100% and we expect nearly the same in humans. This drug, coupled with cow-milk-derived protein lactoferrin (bLf) not only reduces tumours faster than the ‘drug alone’ (Doxorubicin), it also kills the cancer stem cells responsible for drug resistance and tumor re-growth and spread.” The possibilities of using the new drug’s healing properties for other diseases are also under consideration.

“Within 96 hours, all the cancer cells were dead when grown in ‘3D cancers’ in a culture dish from drug resistant and cancer stem cells. In feeding experiments, as an added benefit, there was an increase in red blood cells, white blood cells and haemoglobin, indicating that the immune system had also been boosted. Interestingly, this combination not only targeted prostate tumour development in mice, it also led to repair of the Dox induced damage to vital organs including heart and brain,” he added.

The main goal of the research team is now to move to trials with real patients. “We are looking for commercial partners to sponsor these clinical trials. We are presently trying to get funding through AISRF. If funding is arranged, personalised medicine can reach the Indian markets in the next 4-5 years at reasonably affordable prices,” Dr Rupinder said.

The authors of the study are Jagat R. Kanwar, Rupinder K. Kanwar, Jayanth Suryanarayanan Shankaranarayanan, and Afrah Jalil Abd Al-Juhaishi.

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