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Protein can help the fight against cancer

U of C researchers look into lactoferrin and its immunity boosting capabilities

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Cancer research today is as imperative as ever, and new research at the University of Calgary is helping shed light on prevention and treatment of the disease. Professor of biochemistry Hans Vogel is researching a protein called lactoferrin that may boost immunity and gives insight into cancer treatment and prevention.

The Canadian Cancer Society released their 2012 Canadian Cancer Statistics report revealing an expected 186,400 new diagnoses of cancer in Canada this year. This number falls in line with the increasing cancer incidence rate for the past 30 years.

Vogel began researching lactoferrin in the 1990s. His research began as an investigation into the protein's iron-binding properties. Lactoferrin is naturally produced in breast milk, and is believed to be important for infants in obtaining mineral iron while nursing.

Vogel came across research describing lactoferrin's unique ability to split into a peptide that can kill bacteria and act like an antibiotic. This prompted him to look into the structure of the peptide.

"We were very interested in that because we thought it was a unique mode of action," said Vogel.

Lactoferrin is also present in white blood cells, indicating that this protein plays a role in boosting immunity. The protein has anti-microbial, anti-viral, anti-fungal and anti-cancer roles.

"One of the main things that the protein does is that it actually has a strong immunostimulating effect, and that is why it can probably do so many different things well," said Vogel.

Vogel is part of a research team that collaborates with a research group in Norway to focus on lactoferrin's cancer fighting properties.

Vogel's Norwegian colleagues have treated grafted tumours in animals with lactoferrin-derived peptides. Cancer cell line research using lactoferrin has also been done.

The studies have found that cancer cells will take up lactoferrin and change their gene expression.

"Lactoferrin can be added on the outside of the cell," said Vogel. "The cell goes into a slightly different state, which is probably a healthier state."

Companies have also performed human trials where human lactoferrin genes are cloned and administered to cancer patients. Although the research is still in its trial stage, researchers have found that lactoferrin is effective against some forms of lung and kidney cancer.

According to the Canadian Cancer Statistics report, lung cancer has the highest incidence rate, causing 27 per cent of all cancer deaths in Canada. Among the other most prevalent forms of cancer are kidney, prostate and breast cancer.

"What is unique about this is you can actually take the protein orally," said Vogel. "The protein stimulates the immune system in such a way that helps to actually beat back the cancer."

Vogel said this course of research has taken some unexpected turns.

"We started thinking about metal ions some 15 years ago, and now we are thinking maybe about treating cancer," said Vogel. "We could not have predicted that when we started."

Vogel is currently studying variants of the peptides derived from lactoferrin which may lead to a more potent product than whole lactoferrin.

Vogel hopes this research will help people affected by cancer and develop other positive outcomes with immunity and health.