Sitting quietly in the Albertson’s Library, his recently published article resting neatly on the table in front of him, research assistant professor Abdelkrim Alileche spoke about the events that led him to a lifetime of cancer research. He detailed accounts of patients’ stark hopelessness and quiet desperation, and the many lives that have succumbed to the disease.
“As a doctor, I can tell you that there is nothing as bad as looking at a patient and saying, ‘I have nothing for you,’” Alileche said. This despondency is what led the Boise State professor to his career in cancer research, and subsequently, his discovery of potential cancer-combatants.
These combatants are more commonly known as peptides–in this case, peptides 9R and 9S1R–which are small proteins composed of five to 10 amino acids. After years of research, Alileche and Greg Hampikian, professor of biology and criminal justice, found the use of 9R and 9S1R has a lethal effect on 58 of the 60 cancer cells outlined by the National Cancer Institute (NCI)-60 panel.
Cancer cells on the NCI-60 panel are derived from nine different organs: kidney, breast, ovary, skin melanoma, lung, brain, colon, prostate and the hematopoietic system. By penetrating cancerous cells and attacking their energy production systems, 9R and 9S1R are able to fight off cancer in each of the nine organs.
Before they can continue down the road to becoming a viable cancer-fighting drug, further research must be done to figure out how, exactly, the peptides will wipe out cells’ energy production. According to Alileche, barriers to this process include insufficient funding and a lack of manpower. As funding and availability of researchers are scarce, the implementation of 9R and 9S1R may be years down the road.
“This is early-stage research work. We have to remember that many promising drug candidates fail in animal studies or later in human trials,” Hampikian said. “The really exciting finding from our work is that these Nullomer peptides lower the energy level in cells, and particularly in some fast growing cancers. The findings may take years to exploit in human trials, but we have new weapons to try in the battle against cancer.”
Regardless of how long it may take, the potential for a new drug is there. According to Alileche’s research article, The Effect of Nullomer-Derived Peptides 9R, 9S1R and 124R on the NCI-60 Panel and Normal Cell Lines, the current cancer treatments are unable to function in the same way the new peptides do. These proteins differ from traditional cancer treatments in four ways, each relating to how they fight cancerous cells. Here’s how:
They work against drug-resistant cancers and drug-sensitive cancers
“In the evolution of cancer and the treatment of patients, patients respond to the drugs. Then, after they have a relapse, they respond less,” Alileche said. “Why? Because even if you kill 90% of the cells–or even more–there are cells that remain that say, ‘Okay, we can deal with this drug.’”
9R and 9S1R fight off those remaining cells. They work differently in that they actively attack cancers that have already built up some resistance to treatment. In normal treatments, this resistance to drugs can result in death, but Alileche hopes the peptides are advanced enough to prevent that outcome.
They are active against hormone and cytokine sensitive or resistant cancers
In their earliest stages, breast and prostate cancers are susceptible to hormones and cytokines, and as such, it is common to use those as treatments. But as the evolution of cancer cells continues, they develop a tolerance to these treatments. Furthermore, some cancers are completely unresponsive to hormones and cytokines. Alileche and Hampikian’s proteins have the potential to combat that.
They fight cancer stem cells
“Cancer stem cells are a big headache for oncologists, because when you treat the tumor, it may regress, but cancer stem cells don’t respond. They take over. And when they take over, these cells are resistant to drugs and radiation–sometimes it’s a fatal situation,” Alileche said.
As with the peptides’ other qualities, 9R and 9S1R fight stem cells in a way that other cancer treatments don’t.
They kill both slow and fast growing cells
By acting against two different types of cancerous cells, the proteins have an advantage over traditional cancer treatments. They employ a comprehensive attack on heterogeneous cells, which many drugs do not currently do.
Between all of these cancer cells is one common denominator: their energy production system. Each cancerous cell is fueled by two different powerhouses, the cytoplasm and the mitochondria. In order for 9R and 9S1R to be successful, they must effectively shut down both the cytoplasm and mitochondria–and the processes occurring within them. Figuring out how to shut down the cells’ energy will be part of future research, once financing and manpower become available.
When the time comes for the proteins to be introduced to the cancer-treatment sphere, Alileche hopes they will aid in the early detection of cancer while helping lessen the disease’s damage–physical and otherwise.
“Cancer has been my whole life,” Alileche said. “To find something to kill cancer is always an excitement because I have seen a lot of people die of cancer–a lot of good people.”