History of cancer treatment: from fox lungs to wasp venom
If you type the words “what are wasps…” into Google, the search engine’s top suggestion is that you’re looking for ‘“what are wasps good for?” – to which most right-thinking people would respond, Edwin Starr-like, “Absolutely nothin’”.
That’s actually not true, because the Brazilian Polybia paulista wasp has shot to the top of my coveted “top insects of South America” list. Why? Its venom, it turns out, could cause a breakthrough in modern cancer treatment.
As detailed in a new study in Biophysical Journal, the wasp venom contains a toxin called MP1 which has been shown to destroy tumour cells, without causing harm to healthy cells. This is very much the holy grail in cancer treatment, which often has the severe drawback of being too effective and destroying healthy cells through collateral damage.
MP1 works by tearing holes in the cancer cells’ membranes, forcing them to leak molecules. It doesn’t attack healthy cells due to their differing composition: the cancer cells that the experimental drug has been found to attack (prostate and bladder cancer, plus a multi-drug resistant strain of leukemia) have two lipids in the membrane that healthy cells don’t have: phosphatidylserine and phosphatidylethanolamine. Cells need both to be vulnerable to the toxin, with the former allowing MP1 to bind to the cell, and the latter causing the tears.
“Formed in only seconds, these large pores are big enough to allow critical molecules such as RNA and proteins to easily escape cells. When that happens, the cell dies,” explained researcher João Ruggiero Neto from São Paulo University.
“On average, 50% of people getting cancer in the UK will survive for ten or more years – that still sounds weak, but consider that has doubled in the last 40 years, and you can see we’re definitely moving in the right direction.”
These kinds of antimicrobial peptides don’t usually differentiate effectively enough between types of cells to be considered an effective treatment, but early impressions are positive, with MP1 killing cancer cells and bacteria in rats without harming their healthy cells.
“As it has been shown to be selective to cancer cells and non-toxic to normal cells in the lab, this peptide has the potential to be safe, but further work would be required to prove that,” said co-researcher Paul Beales from the University of Leeds.
In other words, it’s early days yet, but there are definitely reasons to be excited about this. The history of cancer treatment has had its fair share of false-dawns, but there has been a sharp increase in medical knowledge over the last half century.
On average, 50% of people getting cancer in the UK (depending on the strain) will survive for ten or more years – that still sounds weak, but consider that has doubled in the last 40 years, and you can see we’re definitely moving in the right direction.
You’re certainly better off today than you would have been in Ancient Egypt, where the disease was first recorded. The document – the Edwin Smith Papyrus – refers to eight breast tumours, which they attempted to treat via “fire drill cauterisation.” Bear in mind that this was 3000BC, well before anaesthetic was invented. Unsurprisingly, a note on the document says “There is no treatment.”
In fact, these early remedies tended to fall into one of two categories: ineffective, or horrible painful AND ineffective, with apothecaries prescribing boar’s tooth, fox lungs, ground white coral or a full on mastectomy sans anaesthetic.
“Early remedies tended to fall into one of two categories: ineffective, or horrible painful AND ineffective.”
All our modern treatments require far more detailed knowledge of the human anatomy. Innovative work by William Harvey in 1628 (blood circulation), Anton van Leeuwenhoek in 1676 (discovering bacteria) and William Morton in 1846 (general anaesthesia) laid the foundations for modern day cancer research.
Several observations were made between those dates, including the link between tobacco (snuff, specifically) and cancer in 1761, and certain workers being more susceptible to the disease (chimney sweeps were obviously frequently exposed to carcinogens in their line of work). Still, this shallow understanding didn’t prevent widespread misinformation, with France’s first cancer hospital being forced out of Reims for fear it would spread the disease around the city.
Surgery had mixed results in the late 1800s, but in 1895 the first X-ray was created, and medical student Emil Grubbe made the discovery that radiation could kill tumours. The science behind it was a mystery, and it often caused new cancers in the process – not least of all to Grubbe, who died from cancer himself at the ripe old age of 85.
We have the First World War to thank for the first chemotherapy agent. Nitrogen mustard, a gas previously used to poison soldiers in the trenches, was found to be effective at treating lymphoma. It was rebranded Mustine, and was approved by the US Food and Drug Administration in 1949.
“Nitrogen mustard, a gas previously used to poison soldiers in the trenches, was found effective at treating lymphoma.”
In 1947 Sidney Farber – often called the father of chemotherapy – seemed to achieve miraculous results on leukemia with antifolates, drugs that block the growth of white blood cells. While the disease would return, his groundwork laid the path for the first multi-drug combination therapy 11 years later in 1958, when leukaemia was successfully cured in three trials at American hospitals.
Surgery, radiation and drugs provide the basis for modern cancer treatment, but other advances have helped us along the way. Until the 1970s, a diagnosis still required exploratory surgery to extract tissue samples, before ultrasound and then fibre-optics gradually phased them out. Likewise, computer technology provided the ability to compile vast amounts of cancer data – and is still vital today, most recently with Intel’s Cancer Cloud reported by Alphr here.
Hopefully, the Brazilian wasps will mark another key point in the history of cancer – and make it a thing of the past.