A dinnertime chat between a father and daughter gave Professor Michael Lisanti the inspiration to come up with a way of destroying cancer stem cells.
The family were having dinner when dad Michael asked his daughter Camilla how she would go about curing cancer. She replied that people who are ill should take antibiotics, sparking a brainwave in her professor father, who is director of the Breakthrough Breast Cancer Unit at Manchester University.
Prof Lisanti and mum Dr Federica Sotgia were intrigued by the “naïve” idea and began to research it.
Prof Lisanti led the research after being inspired by his daughter’s comment to look at the effects of antibiotics on the mitochondria of cancer stem cells.
He discovered that drugs used to treat other illnesses could be repurposed to treat certain types of cancer.
Professor Lisanti said: “I knew that antibiotics can affect mitochondria, but that conversation helped me to make a direct link. Camilla made a very broad generalisation, that adults wouldn’t make, because they know too much.
“It appeared naive, but when we dug deeper and looked at the problem, all the pieces of the puzzle came together.”
Cancer stem cells are associated with the growth and recurrence of all cancers and are difficult to eradicate with normal treatment. This leads to tumours developing resistance to other treatments.
Working with experts in New York and in Philadelphia, Prof Lisanti used five types of antibiotics on cell lines of eight types of tumour.
The research findings showed that four of the drugs eradicated cancer stem cells in every test, including glioblastoma, the most aggressive type of brain tumour. They also had the same effect on lung, prostate, ovarian, breast, pancreatic and skin cancer.
Unlike other cancer treatments, the antibiotics had no harmful effect on normal cells. They are also already approved for use in humans, therefore trials of new treatments could be simpler and cheaper than with new drugs.
Experts agree that the research sparked by this chance remark could be the first step towards a new type of cancer treatment.