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Dark matter

deep sea bacteria

Rockfire is resisting the temptation to feel smug.  In November, it highlighted the beneficial effects of bacteria and just one month later, deep sea bacteria are the heroes of this week’s medical news.

They form the basis of a therapy that has been developed to treat prostate cancer.  Prostate cancer kills one man every hour in the UK so it is little wonder that everyone is so excited by this apparent breakthrough in treatment.

Phase III clinical trials of WST11 have shown that 49% of the 413 men suffering from low-risk (early stage) prostate cancer, who were treated with the trial drug, are now in ‘complete remission’. [1]

The therapy on which WST11 is based was initially developed by the Weizmann Institute of Israel, in collaboration with Steba Biotech, a company whose research and manufacturing operations are also in Israel.  The three trial phases were conducted by University College London at 47 treatment sites in ten countries and those treated with the new drug were three times more likely to show complete recovery than those who were not.

No one has yet taken credit for trawling the ocean floor for potentially useful bacteria but someone found a variety that so rarely sees the light, deep down in its dark habitat, that it has become exceptionally efficient at converting light into energy.   Someone else, or perhaps that same someone, thought about the practical applications of such a skill and teams of clever people later, the bacteria were used to create a photosensitive drug, WST11.

The drug is introduced into the patient’s bloodstream and then light is applied to the cancerous tissue by means of a microscopic laser.  The light causes the photosensitive drug to release free radicals (unstable, reactive atoms or groups of atoms) that attack the surrounding cells.  In this way, the therapy destroys malignant cells while leaving healthy tissue intact.

The therapy is non-surgical and minimally invasive and, two years on from treatment, not one of the patients who had received WST11 had any of the normal side effects such as incontinence.

In principle, the therapy could be applied to other early stage cancers where the tumour is contained and has not begun to spread.  If so, that anonymous deep sea bacteria hunter should step out of the shadows and take a bow.

[1] Prostate cancer drug brings complete remission for half of patients