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Malaria Drug, Chloroquine, May Help Treat Brain Cancer

Update Date: Jan 21, 2017 10:04 AM EST

The anti-malaria drug, chloroquine, may now be a unique way to resensitize some cancer patients to treatment for brain cancer. The new study shows how the drug could be used to treat brain cancer patients.

In a study published in the journal eLife, the scientists described how the malaria drug was successfully used to treat a 26-year-old cancer patient. Lisa Rosendahl was given only a few months to live by her doctors after her brain cancer became resistant to chemotherapy and then to targeted treatments.

The Science Behind

"Lisa is a young adult with a very strong will to live. But it was a high-risk, aggressive glioblastoma and by the time we started this work, she had already tried everything. For that population, survival rates are dismal," Dr. Jean Mulcahy-Levy, lead author of the study, said in as reported by the Science Daily.

"Miraculously, she had a response to this combination. Four weeks later, she could stand and had improved use of her arms, legs and hands," she added.

The science behind the off-label use of chloroquine was in large part built in the laboratory of Andrew Thorburn, wherein they studied a cellular process called autophagy. It is a process of cellular recycling in which the cell organelles dubbed as autophagosomes encapsulate extra or dangerous material and transport it into the cell's lysosomes for disposal.

The problem is, tumors sometimes use autophagy to stay health, leveraging cellular recycling to tolerate the stress that drugs put them under, Science Alert reports. In Rosendahl's case, she had a type of cancer that was especially dependent on the process, due to a genetic mutation called BRAFV600E.

However, chloroquine is known to inhibit this process, which made the researchers try the drug as a last resort effort to combat the tumors - by combining it with vemurafenib.

"Patients with resistance had favorable clinical responses when chloroquine was added to vemurafenib. This provides a fundamentally different strategy to circumvent multiple mechanisms of kinase inhibitor resistance that could be rapidly tested in clinical trials in patients with BRAFV600E brain tumors," the researchers concluded in the study.

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