By Sola Ogundipe
A BREAKTHROUGH discovery about the potential ofÂ nutrients in cancer prevention and treatment hasÂ provided renewed hope for cancer patients across the world, following the development of a derivative ofÂ vitamin EÂ that is capable of killing cancer cells.
Prof. Emmanuel Akporiaye, the Nigerian researcher and professor of cancerÂ immunology who developed alpha-TEA – theÂ novel molecule is currently Chief, Laboratory of Tumour and Immunology & Therapeutics, Robert W. Franz Cancer Research Center, Earle A. Chiles Research Institute, Providence Portland Medical Center, USA.
He is alsoÂ Adjunct Professor, Department of Molecular Microbiology and Immunology, Oregon Health Sciences University and Professor Emeritus, Department of Immunobiology, University of Arizona, Tucson, Arizona.
Akporiaye,Â whose breakthrough vitamin E research was celebrated at the Providence Cancer Center, is widely acknowledged as being on the verge of producing the worldâ€™s first syntheticÂ form of vitamin E in pill form for patients undergoing cancer treatment. The drug wold also hold the promise of improving their response rate to standard therapies, while preventing recurrence yet increasing survival rates.
In his research entitled â€œUse of Novel Vitamin E Analog to Treat Breast Cancer Griffith University, Nathan, Australia February 2009 – August 2009, he was quoted as saying the goal is to prevent and successfully treat cancer. He said: â€œChemical compounds that are structurally similar to vitamin E constitute a promising new area of research.â€
In experimental models, Akporiaye along with other research colleagues have shown that the alpha-TEA derivativenot only kills cancer cells and inhibits the growth of existing tumours â€“ it also suppresses the spread of cancer to distant organs. The discovery is more remarkable becauseÂ commonly available forms of vitamin E have no direct anti-cancer effects.
In a chat with Good Health Weekly,Â the cancerÂ immunologist noted that alternative treatment of cancer is fast gaining gaining momentum especially with nutrients.
â€œOne area of my research areas is about developing a derivative of vitamin E and we have actually developed such derivative of vitamin E that can kill cancer cells specifically. It is a natural derivative, and we can now do clinical trials in humans.
â€œSo far most cancer treatments are chemotherapeutic andÂ rather toxic because they kill cancerous cells as well as normal cells. Thatâ€™s why people lose their hair and cannot keep food down because the drugs attack the DNA of the affected cells.â€
Emphasising that the most effective way to reduce cancer in Nigeria was through, information, early diagnosis and access to treatment, the scientist however pointed out that the greatest challenge in cancer treatment now is to find new drugs that will specifically target cancerous cells and are less toxic to normal cells.
â€œAs a researcher, this is crucial. Cancer cells are very smart. You treat them with one drug and they change shape. They are chameleon-like. So looking for things that donâ€™t change, things that remain constantÂ to cause resistance is desirable.
â€œOne such derivative is vitamin E succinate, sold in pill form at health food stores. Like all such vitamin E derivatives that have been studied to date, vitamin E succinate loses its power when taken orally.Â Although it can kill cancer cells in a test tube, digestive enzymes in the body break vitamin E succinate down and convert it into inactive vitamin E.â€
To overcome that obstacle,Â Akporiaye teamed up withÂ Dr. Laurence Hurley at the University of Arizona. Dr. Hurley who synthesized a form of vitamin E called alpha-TEA that cannot be broken down by those enzymes.Â Alpha-TEA remains stable as it leaves the digestive system and enters the bloodstream ready to kill cancer cells.
Akporiaye was also the first to demonstrate that the derivative stimulates the immune system and helps it to selectively target cancer cells – making it an ideal candidate for combination with existing and experimental immunotherapies.
He is also collaborating with the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the American Institute for Cancer Research (AICR) to research into strategiesÂ against human breast/colon cancer, and human lymphoma in mice.
Indications are that promising results from the e studies, are likely to move the drug to a phase I trial in humans.
Akporiaye, who hails from Warri, Delta State but possesses American citizenship, hasÂ been involved in improving treatment of cancer for more than three decades, told Good Health Weekly that since most successful chemotherapy regimens today consist of multiple drugs administered simultaneously to treat cancer, combination therapy has become a familiar idea to most cancer patients.
â€œThese drug combinations allow oncologists to boost the effectiveness of chemotherapy treatment while keeping the toxic side effects of that therapy manageable.
On whether cancer is curable, he stated that cancer can be treated and the current notion is to think of it as a chronic disease.
â€œLet me say cancer is treatable, but we are working towards a cure. We are making good advances. Iâ€™d say that within the context that some of the drugs we have now are less toxic though the chemotherapeutic drugs are more selective. They can differentiate between cancerous cells and normal cells.
â€œCancer is more survivable today than ever in the past. The incidence rate is going down in some instances. But we have to focus on prevention and decrease the toxicity in the environment, improve diet and exercise more to really decrease the incidence.Â Some of the treatment drugs are now more tolerable and less harsh.â€
Stressing the point of early detection, he saidâ€ â€œIf the cancer can be detected in Stage I, when the cancer is still within the breast, the cancer can be contained either by lumpectomy or radical mastectomy (taking out the breast). The research I doÂ tries to address some of these issues.
It all boils down to early detection. There are now what we call bio-markers. When a normal cell is becoming cancerous, if you look in the blood,Â sometimes you can see changes in the blood before the person actually has the cancer. They are like signatures in the blood that tell if something is going wrong and are specific for certain cancers. Knowledge of these signatures will aid in telling us if something is going wrong and we can intervene in time early enough to reduce mortality and hope of survival.
â€œI focus on trying to mobilise the immune system to cure cancer. Treatment such as chemotherapy can sometimes cause other cancers or can be toxic. So Iâ€™m trying to mobilise the immune system against cancer because the immune system can tell the cancerous cell apart from the normal cell with exclusive specificity.
So one aspect of my research is to identify cancer in the early stages through the biomarkers. We know the entire human genome looks like and where the genetic changes that can give rise to cancer take place. This has enabled us to design new drugs that can target some of those changes as well as build the immune system.â€