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By Roger Highfield (Daily Telegraph)

Snake's venom may help treat breast cancer

A PROTEIN found in copperhead snake venom dramatically retards the growth of breast tumours, scientists reported last week.

Preliminary studies by a research team from the University of Southern California, led by Professor Francis Markland, have shown that it can also inhibit growth of other cancers.

In studies with mice implanted with human breast cancer cells, a 60 to 70 per cent reduction in the growth rate of the breast tumours and a 90 per cent reduction of tumours that spread to the lungs was found in rodents treated with the protein. However, it will take at least 18 months before the venom protein will be ready to test on patients.

"We have a long way to go from mice to the female of the human species," Prof Markland told colleagues in Boston, at the national meeting of the American Chemical Society, the world's largest scientific society. He said: "We are in the process of genetically engineering the venom. We would have to milk every snake in the world to get the venom we would need for a trial."

Earlier this year there was great excitement about the efforts to block a process called angiogenesis, the development of new blood vessels, which is exploited by a tumour to obtain a supply of nutrients and growth factors, a disposal route for its wastes, and a route for cancerous cells to spread.

The copperhead protein acts by inhibiting the development of new blood vessels to nourish the tumours and by putting tumour cells into a "suspended state of animation". Prof Markland said the dual action helped prevent the spread of cancer, a process called metastasis.

When first diagnosed with breast cancer, many women already have metastatic disease, which means that the cancer has spread to another site such as the lymph nodes, brain or bone.

Called contortrostatin, CN, the protein is purified from the venom of the southern copperhead and is one of a cocktail used by the snake to immobilise prey, keeping blood fluid so that other damaging proteins can spread through the body. Prof Markland said: "Snake venoms in general are loaded with proteins, many of which lead to tissue destruction at the site of the bite." The mice trials had not revealed any side-effects other than local bleeding.

CN belongs to a class of proteins known as disintegrins, so named because they disrupt the function of certain other proteins, called integrins, on the surface of cells that enable them to stick together.

CN is effective in retarding the spread of tumour cells because it inhibits their adhesion to and invasion of normal cells. CN would need to be administered periodically over time in the hope of shrinking the tumour to a size where treatment could be scaled back or stopped.

Dr Lesley Walker, head of scientific information at the Cancer Research Campaign, said: "It's the spread of cancer which in the majority of cases is so devastating. This work is interesting because it is highly targeted to tumour cell behaviour . . . it's an intelligent way of dealing with cancer and has therapeutic potential."

It is not the first time that snake venom has been the basis of medical treatment. Venom from the Brazilian arrowhead viper is used to help reduce blood pressure.

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