How Alzheimer’s bad guy amyloid is being harnessed to fight cancer

The plaque-forming protein amyloid has been implicated in diseases ranging from Alzheimer’s to cataracts. Now scientists at the Flanders Institute for Biotechnology in Belgium are perfecting a way to harness the protein and turn it into something good: a potential treatment for cancer. 

Researchers Frederic Rousseau and Joost Schymkowitz have designed a molecule that uses amyloid formation to inhibit VEGFR2, a well-known cancer driver, according to a press release from the Flanders Institute. The molecule, called vascin, penetrates cancer cells and causes VEGFR2 to clump up and become crippled. Without functioning VEGFR2, cancer cells die and tumors shrink. The researchers published the results of their work in the journal Science.

"One could compare it to catching tumors in a spider's web,” said Rousseau in the release. And capitalizing on the clumping ability of amyloid may prove to be the key to fighting many diseases, he believes. “Because these principles apply to virtually any protein, our approach may not only be useful in developing future cancer therapies, but also in treating drug-resistant infections."

Amyloid is a ubiquitous protein that’s found in everything from boiled eggs to beer foam. But most of the research focused on using the protein for medical purposes has involved inhibiting it, not stimulating it. Amyloid inhibition is the goal of many experimental Alzheimer’s treatments that aim to clear memory-destroying plaques from the brain.

Another protein, tau, has also been implicated in Alzheimer’s, prompting some scientists to try to develop drugs that can target both it and amyloid. In September, Cambridge, MA-based Proclara pulled in $47 million in venture funding to advance a pipeline of drugs that target several so-called misfolded proteins, including amyloid beta.

Despite the negative connotations associated with amyloid, the Flanders researchers are pursuing business ventures aimed at putting the protein to work for society’s benefit, according to the release. They’ve patented their method of using the protein to create clumps and dubbed it Pept-in. The technology may even be useful for improving food crops, they say, but their priority is medicine. “Our team will now spend the coming years trying to turn this into direct benefits for patients," said Schymkowitz in the release.