Research & Development

The core technology: Using a malaria protein to target cancer

VAR2 Pharmaceuticals’ technology is founded on discoveries made in the search for malaria vaccines. Malaria parasites multiply in red blood cells. To avoid being filtered through the spleen, the parasites express proteins anchoring infected red blood cells to the vascular lining. One such protein, VAR2CSA binds parasites specifically in the placenta by recognizing a distinct type of chondroitin sulfate A, named oncofetal CSA. By catching growth factors and promoting cell motility, oncofetal CSA ensures that the placenta can grow fast and invade uterine tissue. Fast growth and invasiveness are features shared between cancer and placenta.

Recent research has discovered that expression of oncofetal CSA indeed is a common factor shared by the placenta and most types of cancers. It has been demonstrated that VAR2CSA binds to cancer cells of epithelial and mesenchymal origin, as well as to cells that have undergone epithelial- to mesenchymal transition. Oncofetal CSA has not been detected on any normal cell type investigated to date, which makes oncofetal CSA a very promising target for e.g., detection and capturing of circulating tumour cells (CTCs), as well as other diagnostic applications.

Oncofetal CSA can also be utilized for targeting of anti-cancer drugs, a concept that is explored by VAR2 Pharmaceuticals. A recombinant form of VAR2CSA, rVAR2, has been developed to be used as the backbone for development of both therapeutic and diagnostic products. Our proprietary rVAR2 proteins bind with high affinity and specificity to the oncofetal CSA, which we have utilized to develop protocols for enrichment of CTCs from cancer patient blood samples (see VarCT Diagnostics).

Patents covering the use of rVAR2 and oncofetal fCSA for treatment of cancer have been issued in the USA, EU and Australia. Prosecution is ongoing in other major markets.