The battle to eliminate disease has to be one of the most remarkable ongoing human endeavors, particularly regarding advances in pharmaceutical treatments and immunizations. Thanks to painstaking research and trials, followed by systematic and widespread distribution of treatment, the world has seen either complete or regional eradication of diseases ranging from smallpox to polio to malaria.
Could cancer someday join that list?
In 2006, scientists made a potentially important discovery of a natural anti-cancer agent. It comes from the berry of the blushwood tree that grows only in the rainforests of northern Australia.
The first hint that the berries had anti-cancer properties came when forest ecologists, Paul Reddell and Victoria Gordon, observed that marsupials curiously spat them out after eating them. On a hunch, they sent the berries off to a commercial lab for testing and from there, they were passed on to the world-renowned QIMR Berghofer Medical Research Institute in Brisbane.
At QIMR, a compound developed from the berries was tested on a tumor cell line with astonishing results. Together with Reddell and Gordon’s company EcoBiotics (specifically, its subsidiary QBiotics), QIMR began development of a drug that was given the working name EBC-46.
EBC-46 is being developed for the global veterinary and human markets to target a range of solid tumors such as mast cell tumors and soft tissue sarcomas. Clinical trials are further along for for animals than for humans, with EBC-46 heading for registration as a veterinary pharmaceutical in the United States, Europe and Australia.
This is good news for animal lovers; currently, 50% of older dogs and cats die from cancer.
The dog below was one of the lucky test subjects to have been treated with EBC-46 as part of trials on the drug’s safety and effectiveness. Within just 15 days of treatment, there was practically nothing left of his tumor. The most encouraging aspect of this discovery is the speed at which the drug kills off cancerous cells. It begins taking effect as quickly as five minutes after being directly injected into the tumor.
In the clinical case study treating mast cell tumors in dogs, EBC-46 was shown to destroy the tumors within four to seven days. There was no tumor regrowth in the following year in 80% of cases. These results were consistent in 400 case studies involving other solid tumor types in dogs, cats and horses. Because of a secondary action of the drug resulting in rapid healing of the tumor site, in most cases, the wounds were fully healed within four weeks without antibiotics or antimicrobial creams.
In addition to the drug’s apparent effectiveness, it also represents a much less complicated method of treating certain cancers since it is administered by a single injection into the tumor and requires no local or general anaesthetic.
“It kills the tumor cells directly and cuts off the blood supply and it also activates the body’s own immune system to clean up the mess that’s left behind,” Dr. Glen Boyle of QIMR Berghofer explained. He noted that the drug is not expected to be used in treatment of cancers that have spread.
A clinical Phase I trial on humans began in March 2015. The first results released last year showed that it could successfully treat four types of tumor — melanoma, squamous cell carcinoma, basal cell carcinoma and breast adenocarcinoma. The complete process for developing a new drug generally takes 12-18 years and can cost over $1 billion. So, while this potentially transformative new cancer treatment is still a while away, humankind may just be that one step closer to making real headway against one of the most deadly diseases of our time.