Using Human Hair to Fight Melanoma
April 30, 2014
A drug made from specially modified proteins from human hair may soon be used to fight melanoma—skin cancer. The formula for the drug has been developed by researchers from the Mossakowski Medical Research Center run by the Polish Academy of Sciences in Warsaw.
Before the new drug is available, the formula will be used to develop a range of cosmetics and ointments for protecting the skin that the researchers say should hit the market next year.
Melanoma is a type of cancer that poses the greatest threat to human skin. Human hair is composed of a mixture of proteins, including keratin, which gives hair flexibility and protects it from chemical and physical factors. The researchers decided to check if specially processed hair proteins—in the form of peptides—can be used to inhibit the growth of cancer.
“We came to the conclusion that hair can provide biological protection. We assumed that peptide proteins coming from hair could offer protection against the formation of cancer cells,” says Prof. Andrzej Lipkowski from the Mossakowski Medical Research Center.
In order to check this hypothesis, the researchers teamed up with oncologists to carry out tests.
“It turned out that all the tested melanoma cell lines were inhibited by our proprietary mixture of peptides,” says Lipkowski. “It slowed down not only the development of typical cancer cells, but also extremely malignant cells.”
Scientists have already patented their method for processing hair protein. Meanwhile, they are planning a range of other uses for their peptide formula. Before it is used as a drug, it can become a component of cosmetics and ointments that are expected to hit the market next year.
The formation of skin cancer is the result of long-term effect of solar radiation, not only during sunbathing on the beach, but also during simple walks in the sun. The peptides developed by the researchers could be used for prevention, especially as they also nourish and regenerate the skin, according to Lipkowski.
Initially, the researchers thought that hair from other species, including sheep hair, could be used to inhibit human tumor cells. However, it turned out that despite the similarity of the chemical composition of human hair and wool, peptides from hair have a specific effect on each species. Therefore, although clinical trials on humans have not yet been carried out, it is clear that peptides from human hair work best against human skin cancers, the researchers say.
In order to be able to protect the skin, hair first needs to be processed in the right way. “The idea is to isolate protein fragments from hair without any dramatic chemical modifications,” says Lipkowski.
The scientists described their formula as “a soluble mixture of peptides after enzymatic degradation of hair fragments.” The best enzyme system for this process is ordinary pepsin, an enzyme that digests food protein in the stomach, according to Lipkowski. “It seemed to us that the use of this enzyme would reasonably well simulate the action of different enzymes acting on the skin. Both the stomach and the skin have similar acidic environments,” says Lipkowski.
Now the most important part of the quest for a new anti-cancer drug will be finding the most active substances among various types of peptides. This is the long-term goal of the research project—entitled “Peptide hydrolysates of hair proteins inhibiting the development of melanoma”—being conducted by Lipkowski’s team.
The research project won a medal from the French Association of Inventors and Producers (AIFF), and a special award from the Biomedical Institute of the Russian Academy of Sciences at the 112th Concours LÚpine International Invention Exhibition in Paris. The researchers also won a gold medal at the INPEX2013 invention exhibition in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. The nearly zl.1 million research project has been co-financed with a grant as part of the Mazovia Peptide Cluster, a research and business cluster that brings together the Mossakowski Medical Research Center, the University of Warsaw and businesses interested in transforming the idea into a commercial product.