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Can Antibiotics Cure Cancer?

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RESEARCHERS AT Dalhousie University are hoping bacteria may hold the key to developing new antibiotics that can cure cancer.

Since 2003, David Jakeman, associate professor of the university’s College of Pharmacy and chemistry department, has been working to generate anti-cancer antibiotics with greater selectivity and power.

Jakeman said scientists have cultured bacteria and discovered they produce natural products with biological activity that can be used to treat infectious diseases or potentially cure cancer.

"Many of the drugs that we now use to treat infectious diseases and cancer actually originate from bacteria in the environment around us."

Bacteria or microbes are tiny, single-celled organisms that are one of the simplest forms of life, he said. "Bacteria exist in the soil, the sea, rain forests, and your own back garden."

Jakeman and his research group of six — mostly graduate or undergraduate students — are working to develop novel antibiotics that contain carbohydrates. They have had success using the soil bacterium Streptomyces venezuelae ISP5230 to make new potential antibiotics for biological testing.

They have already isolated over 20 different antibiotics, over half of which have never been isolated previously.

In ongoing collaborations with others at the university, researchers are testing these potential antibiotics against bacteria that cause human diseases and various cancer cells to determine their medicinal potential.

"The discovery of a new drug is a remote possibility," Jakeman said. But he cautioned that "there is a significant amount of important fundamental science to be conducted in this area that will improve any chance of success."

Jakeman noted Dalhousie has a very strong cancer research community and his research is just one aspect, focusing on discovering a compound for chemotherapy.

Hs team is currently probing the specificity of enzymes responsible for producing carbohydrate-containing antibiotics and is trying to find more efficient methods to spur their production.

Only a few current medicines have different carbohydrates because of the technical difficulties previously associated with producing the necessary molecules. But researchers believe there’s a significant untapped potential for the production of carbohydrate-containing antibiotics because of advances in technology.

By changing the highly complex structure, mechanism and function of enzymes that produce the natural products, Jakeman and his team are hoping that will potentially lead to development of novel carbohydrate-containing bioactive molecules that are better suited at targeting and killing cancer cells or bacterial pathogens.

"The nice thing with the microbe that we’re working with is that we’re able to change the natural products it produces in a very systematic way," he said.

"We have shown that by changing the structure of natural products, we can alter the biological activity.

"Our aim now is to keep refining the structure to try and get a more active compound that potentially doesn’t show any toxicity to other healthy human cells."

Jakeman said enzymes in microbes are the catalysts that produce the natural products and "we’re hoping to come up with a compound that’s very good at selecting between non-cancerous and cancerous cells."

"The enzymes in microbes are being programmed to produce a new compound for biological evaluation," he said.

"We can put in a large number of different precursors and they all get converted to a slightly different product at the end."

Jakeman said some of the new compounds his team has sent off to the National Cancer Institute in the United States have promising biological activity and have progressed through initial rounds of screening.

"The institute wants to test more of our samples," he added.

"We have progressed beyond the tip of the iceberg," Jakeman said of his research. "I think we have some tangible results . . . and so the next step is to improve that activity.

"We have demonstrated biological activity and now we have to do a series of studies to demonstrate the compatibility of the natural products with healthy human cells.

"There are a number of defined experiments you have to do to accomplish this goal," Jakeman said.

But he cautioned researchers could hit "a brick wall" because the compounds won’t be sufficiently active in a particular assay. "At the moment, things are looking promising."

The Nova Scotia Health Research Foundation, the Canadian Institutes of Health Research, the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council and the Nova Scotia chapter of the Canadian Breast Cancer Foundation are all providing funding for Jakeman’s research.

But he said getting funding is becoming harder because there’s a lot more research going on within Atlantic Canada and Canada itself.

He noted the Nova Scotia Health Research Foundation’s budget hasn’t increased over the past five or six years, but during that time there has been a 50 per cent increase in research activity at Dalhousie University.

"There are more research people active than ever before and most have interesting and promising research ideas," he said. "That makes for a much more competitive research environment."

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(The Chronicle Herald, Science Tech, By Brian Hayes, July 5, 2008)


The information contained in these articles may or may not be in agreement with my own opinions. They are not posted as medical advice of any kind.

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