VAR2 Pharmaceuticals is Targeting Cancer Cells Using a Malaria Protein

by Kathleen Crosby | May 27, 2021


Ali Salanti from VAR2 Pharmaceuticals shared information, on day two of the 2021 European Biotech Start-up Symposium, about his company’s research and development using a recombinant cancer binding malaria protein to diagnose, target, and treat cancer. VAR2 was last year’s grant winner but they were unable to give their presentation due to the COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent cancellation of the symposium, so they were invited to speak at this year’s program.

Salanti shared details about their research and use of malaria cells for cancer treatment. Rapid growth and tissue invasion are features shared by cancer cells as well as placental cells. In the placenta, rapid growth is essential to supporting fetal development, but in cancer, of course, it’s not desirable.

In their research VAR2 has discovered that malaria parasites have evolved a protein, called VAR2CSA, that binds with a distinct protein found on placental cells. Placental CSA is not found in normal somatic cells, and therefore, it’s the only reagent that can distinguish normal CSA from placental CSA. Placental CSA is present on the large majority of cancer cells, and these cells will bind and internalize VAR2CSA upon contact (normal cells and tissue don’t bind to the VAR2CSA protein). This binding capability with cancer cells makes VAR2CSA a broadly effective cancer drug.

After discovering this, VAR2 Pharmaceuticals has developed the VAR2CSA drug conjugate that effectively kills cancer cells in vivo and in vitro with no acute adverse effects. VAR2 wishes to transition this research into Phase I clinical trials.

“Novel therapies like this hold the promise to provide an effective and safe therapeutic option for the many types of cancer with no current targeted therapies available,” Salanti said.

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