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Breast milk chemical dissolves tumours so cancer patients can pass them in urine, trial shows

Sarah Knapton
Scientists in Hamlet's lab -

A chemical found only in breast milk helps break up tumours into fragments in the body, allowing cancer patients to pass them through their urine, trial results have shown. 

Alpha1H usually helps in the production of lactose - the nutritious milk sugar produced by mothers which is essential for development in babies. 

But scientists have discovered that it can also morph into a different form which can kill tumours, and hope that it could cure patients. 

First results from an early trial involving 40 patients with hard-to-treat bladder cancer found all 20 who were given the drug rather than placebo, in six infusions over 22 days, excreted whole tumour fragments in their urine.  

In a smaller human trial nine bladder cancer patients were administered five daily doses in the week before surgery to remove their tumour.

Eight out of the nine started passing tumour cells in their urine just two hours after being given the drug, and their tumours reduced in size or aggression.  And unlike other methods of chemotherapy there was no damage to surrounding tissue.

The trial was carried out by at Motol University Hospital in Prague and overseen by scientists from Lund University in Sweden.

Professor Catharina Svanborg Credit: Hamlet Pharma

Professor Catharina Svanborg, who discovered that Alpha1H kills tumour cells in 1995 while at Lund University, and who founded Hamlet Pharma Ltd to test the drug, said she hoped that it could break up many kinds tumours completely allowing them to be passed safely from the body. 

“Alpha1H aids in the production of lactose, the milk sugar that is essential for baby nutrition and to make the milk fluid,” she said.

“When it unfolds, it changes its function and forms tumoricidal complexes. It has a very exciting dual function depending on the 3D structure 

“We have very strong data in mice showing dose-dependent reduction of the tumor, to the point of disappearance. And we have laboratory evidence for effects against many different types of cancer cells and it is therapeutic in animal models of brain tumors and colon cancer as well as bladder cancer.

“The results inspire us to continue the efforts making Alpha1H available to cancer patients.” 

Examining cancer cells under a microscope at Hamlet Pharma's lab Credit: Hamlet Pharma

Around 10,000 people in Britain are diagnosed with bladder cancer each year and only half will survive for 10 years.

But the drug has been found to kill more than forty types of cancer cells in animal trials, and triggers tumour death by promoting ‘apoptosis’ - the natural process of cell death, rather than poisoning them with chemicals. 

“We need more evidence but hopefully this could be the gentle chemotherapy of the future,” says Mats Persson, CEO of Hamlet Pharma Ltd.  

The team now want to move on to further trials to find out if the drug can shrink tumours and improve survival for people with bladder cancer.