A new scientific discovery has raised hopes for improved brain cancer treatments after anti-malaria drug chloroquine unexpectedly recorded positive effects in patients.
Chloroquine has now been used as a last resort on three brain cancer patients, and in each case, it seems to have overcome the cancer’s resistance to traditional treatments.
It appears Chloroquine breaks down the defences that tumours develop in response to cancer-fighting drugs by effectively ‘resetting’ their vulnerability to treatment.
At the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus, doctors have created history as they stabilized a young patient suffering from Glioblastoma, also known as Glioblastoma Multiforme (GBM), dubbed the most aggressive form of brain cancer, with Chloroquine when every other treatment proved to be ineffective.
Paediatric oncologist, Jean Mulcahy-Levy from the University of Colorado says;
“We have treated three patients with the combination and all three have had a clinical benefit. It’s really exciting – sometimes you don’t see that kind of response with an experimental treatment.”
One of the patients the drug was tested on is 26-year-old Lisa Rosendahl, who was previously given just a few months to live. The aggressive glioblastoma in her brain had become resistant to chemotherapy and other targeted treatments.
Rosendahl was eventually put on a cancer inhibitor called vemurafenib, but as often happens with that particular drug, the tumour in her brain soon adapted to become resistant to it, too.
That led the staff working on Rosendahl’s case to try a different approach – targeting a separate cellular process called autophagy.
The doctors were aware of chloroquine’s capability in cell autophagy. They predicted that without the most reliable defender, the tumor would be more vulnerable to traditional treatments used to destroy it.
Fortunately, with that in mind, Mulcahy-Levy and her team decided to give the drug a try as a last-ditch effort to combat the tumours – by combining it with vemurafenib.
Dr Mulcahy-Levy says “Miraculously, [Rosendahl] had a response to this combination. Four weeks later, she could stand and had improved use of her arms, legs, and hands.”
Though the chloroquine didn’t remove the tumour, it did weaken the cancer’s defences enough to get the vemurafenib drug working again to do that on its own, and now Rosendahl’s quality of life is improving.
Only three patients have been given the treatment so far, and not every type of cancer relies so much on autophagy, so until it’s been tested on a much larger and diverse sample, it’s too soon to tell if it will have similar effects on other patients.
More interesting is the fact that the team says a wider clinical test could be rolled out quickly, because chloroquine is already approved as a safe anti-malaria drug by the US FDA (Food and Drug Administration). They also hope that future studies will reveal other cancers where this treatment could be effective.
Meanwhile, since 2005 here in Nigeria, there has been a ban on the drug Chloroquine and Sulfadoxine – Pyrimethamine as first line drugs in the treatment of malaria because of the increasing evidence of drug resistance, which had led to treatment failures.