Sometimes scientific breakthroughs come from the most unexpected places. For instance, the idea that Drs. Michael P. Lisanti and Federica Sotgia, a husband and wife cancer research team working at the Institute of Cancer Sciences, University of Manchester, United Kingdom, had after an ordinary dinner conversation with Camilla, their 8-year old daughter. A conversation that made her parents want to test an unusual hypothesis in their lab: would antibiotics have an effect on the mitochondria of cancer stem cells?
As Professor Lisanti explained in a news release, “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.”
The results of their laboratory research conducted in collaboration with fellow researchers from the Albert Einstein College of Medicine, New York and the Kimmel Cancer Centre, Philadelphia, were published in the journal Oncotarget.
Mitochondria are believed to be the “powerhouse” of the cell because they are a source of energy. This also holds true for mutated cells, such as, those found in cancer tumors, where they provide the metabolic resources for the tumors to continue their growth. Professors Michael P. Lisanti and Federica Sotgia, have both published work on the importance of studying mitochondrial physiology in cancer tumors, but it was the conversation with their daughter that allowed them to connect the crucial antibiotic piece of the cellular puzzle. For our cell’s mitochondria are thought to be an evolutionary artifact from our bacterial ancestors. This is perhaps why studies have shown that antibiotics which are used to eradicate bacteria also affect mitochondria
The researchers tested 5 different currently prescribed antibiotics on 8 different types of cancer tumor cell lines, including lung carcinomas. The results showed that 4 out the 5 antibiotics destroyed the cancer stem cells in every experiment conducted, without any harmful effects observed on the normal cell lines (non-cancerous) tested.
This is not the first time that antibiotics have been shown to have an effect on lung cancer tumors. In a previous publication investigators showed that lung cancer patients lived longer after being given an antibiotic to treat an infection they had: 75% lived for at least a year, up from the usual 45%.
When discussing their findings, Professor Lisanti stated that “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.”
Professor Sotgia, understands the study findings global potential in alleviating the economic burden that cancers, such as lung carcinomas, are having in low-income countries, “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.”
Camilla’s parents have acknowledged her contribution to their research by naming her as an author of their study, making her one of a very small pool of research authors under the age of ten.
Professor Lisanti said: ‘I thought it was very naïve to think you could cure cancer with antibiotics, but at the end of the day Camilla was right.”