A group of researchers led by Professor Michael P. Lisanti, Director of the Breakthrough Breast Cancer Unit, have published results of a recent study in Oncotarget, whereby they demonstrate the promising effects of antibiotics on different types of cancer cells, including skin cancer.
After a casual conversation with his 8-year-old daughter Camilla about his cancer research, Prof. Lisanti decided to investigate the effects of antibiotics on the mitochondria of cancer stem cells.
Mitochondria are responsible for producing energy within a cell, allowing cancer cells to proliferate and become more aggressive. Cancer stem cells are linked to the capacity of skin cancer recurrence, and are extremely difficult to eliminate with current available therapies.
“I was having a conversation with Camilla about how to cure cancer and she asked why don’t we just use antibiotics like we do for other illnesses. I knew that antibiotics can affect mitochondria and I’ve been doing a lot of work recently on how important they are to the growth of tumours, but this conversation helped me to make a direct link”, explained Professor Lisanti in a news release.
In this research, Professor Lisanti and his collaborators from The Albert Einstein College of Medicine, New York and the Kimmel Cancer Centre, Philadelphia used 5 different types of antibiotics (including doxycycline, commonly used for acne treatment), and tested their effects on skin cancer cells lines along with seven other cancer types. The results were surprising, as the antibiotics were capable of killing all types of cancer stem cells.
One of the hypotheses to explain the observed effect includes the fact that mitochondria descended from bacteria during an early phase of evolution. As such, drugs used to destroy bacteria can also have an impact on the mitochondria present in cancer stem cells, albeit not to the same extent.
Importantly, the team observed the antibiotics’ deleterious effects were specific for malignant cells, leaving healthy cells untouched.
“This research makes a strong case for opening new trials in humans for using antibiotics to fight cancer. Many of the drugs we used were extremely effective, there was little or no damage to normal cells and these antibiotics have been in use for decades and are already approved by the FDA for use in humans. However, of course, further studies are needed to validate their efficacy, especially in combination with more conventional therapies”, added Professor Lisanti.
“The conclusions that the researchers have drawn, whilst just hypotheses at this stage, are certainly interesting. Antibiotics are cheap and readily available and if in time the link between their use and the eradication of cancer stem cells can be proved, this work may be the first step towards a new avenue for cancer treatment. This is a perfect example of why it is so important to continue to invest in scientific research. Sometimes there are answers to some of the biggest questions right in front of us but without ongoing commitment to the search for these answers, we’d never find them”, stated Dr. Matthew Lam, Senior Research Officer at Breakthrough Breast Cancer.
Dr. Federica Sotgia, also a lead author of the study concluded, “As these drugs are considerably cheaper than current therapies, they can improve treatment in the developing world where the number of deaths from cancer is predicted to increase significantly over the next ten years”.