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LONDON — Although cancer research has come a long way, some forms of the disease are still extremely difficult to treat. Pancreatic cancer holds the worst survival rate among the most common forms of the disease. Researchers say that may change one day thanks to an unlikely ally: foot-and-mouth disease.

A study, published in Theranostics, shows a groundbreaking new way to target a specific protein tied to pancreatic cancer. This protein, alpha-v-beta-6 (ΑvΒ6), has been discovered in high amounts in 84 percent of patients.

Researchers at Queen Mary University say there is a peptide in foot-and-mouth disease that targets ΑvΒ6. After combining the peptide with a drug called Tesirine, the mixture either stopped the growth or killed pancreatic cancer tumors in mice.

“Foot-and-mouth-disease virus uses ΑvΒ6 as a route to infect cattle, as the virus binds to this protein on a cow’s tongue,” Professor John Marshall says in a statement. “By testing pieces of the protein in the virus that attaches to ΑvΒ6, we’ve developed a route to deliver a drug specifically to pancreatic cancers.”

Virus That Specifically Kills Pancreatic Cancer?

Foot-and-mouth disease is a highly contagious virus that commonly infects animals with divided hooves, like cows and pigs. According to the United States Department of Agriculture, typical symptoms include fever and blisters around the mouth and hooves. The illness is not related to hand-foot-and-mouth disease, which commonly infects young children.

Researchers say this treatment is almost tailor-made to attack pancreatic cancer because of how unique ΑvΒ6 is to the disease. The study adds that an approved treatment could be even safer than other cancer drugs.

“One advantage of targeting ΑvΒ6 is that it is very specific to the cancer, because most normal human tissues have little or none of this protein,” Prof. Marshall explains. “If we can develop this into an effective treatment for pancreatic cancer, it would have limited side effects.”

A Successful Start

Marshall and his team studied the treatment on both human cells in a lab and live mice.

In the ΑvΒ6-positive mice, researchers say that a small dose of the peptide/tesirine combination three times a week completely stopped the growth of pancreatic cancer tumors. When the dosage was increased, all of the tumors were completely destroyed. That larger dose was only given twice a week.

“These very exciting results, that are the result of many years of laboratory testing, offer a completely new way of treating pancreatic cancer,” Marshall adds.

The research team says they are now hoping to continue their tests with more complex cases in mice, including eliminating cancer cells which have spread throughout the body. If those tests go well, they could then move on to a clinical trial.

“This early-stage research has developed a promising new drug that reduces the growth of pancreatic tumors in the lab,” says Dr. Emily Farthing of Cancer Research UK. “With further research to see if it’s safe and effective for patients, we hope that this could one day offer new hope for people with this disease.”

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About Chris Melore

Chris Melore has been a writer, researcher, editor, and producer in the New York-area since 2006. He won a local Emmy award for his work in sports television in 2011.

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