Antibiotics to combat cancer – a new-age therapy!


Did you know that a side effect of antibiotics has actually proven useful in aiming at the root of cancer? Cancer, as most of us know, is a disease characterized by uncontrolled growth of cells that manifest as solid tumors or as blood-based cancers in various parts of the body.

In the late nineties, cancer stem cells were believed to persist in tumors as a distinct population that possess characteristics associated with normal stem cells. Specifically these cells have the ability to give rise to all cell types and have the capacity to become mobile and form metastatic tumors at other sites in the body. Cancer stem cells were discovered to be the cause for relapse, metastasis and disease progression of cancer.

Recently, scientists from The Breakthrough Breast Cancer Research Unit, have discovered a new strategy to hit at the root of cancer by targeting the cancer stem cells using the ‘off-target effect’ of popular antibiotics, i.e. mitochondrial biogenesis (formation of new mitochondria).

Using a proteomic approach, the scientists first identified commonality among all the cancer stem cells of various cancers and found a strict dependence on the continuous formation of new mitochondria for their survival and expansion. The mitochondria or the powerhouse of the cell is a key regulator that provides the energy for all metabolic activities, and controls cell signaling and cell death.

Image: Summary of the drug discovery
Image: Summary of the drug discovery

In evolution, mitochondria originally were formed from bacteria and were engulfed by our human cells millions of years ago; antibiotics that were designed to eliminate bacteria from our bodies have a mild side effect of targeting our mitochondria. Taking advantage of this information, the researchers analyzed and proved that 4-5 different classes of FDA approved antibiotics, such as the erythromycins, tetracyclins and chloramphenicols can be used to selectively target cancer stem cells.

This promising new therapeutic approach views cancer in new light, as a single disease of increased “stemness”; thus removing the complexity of individual mutational differences in the vast variety of cancer types which traditionally warranted independent treatment. As the study shows great promise in a multitude of cells lines and petridish (in vitro) experiments, future clinical trials will hopefully develop an effective cancer treatment modality using antibiotics targeting the mitochondria.

Image: A mutation-independent approach to cancer therapy
Image: A mutation-independent approach to cancer therapy

More on the experimental results and details can be found here.