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Antimicrobial Peptides as Anticancer Agents

An MCubed Spotlight

Ann Arbor, MI — October 10, 2014 — A common food preservative that hinders the growth of biofilms that lead to tooth decay (caries) and periodontal disease has chemical and biological properties that, perhaps, may lead to its use as a potential novel therapeutic for head and neck cancers.  The preservative, nisin, was approved for human consumption by the World Health Organization in 1969 and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration in 1988.

Dr. Yvonne Kapila, a professor in the Department of Periodontics and Oral Medicine at the University of Michigan School of Dentistry, has been investigating nisin’s antitumor potential in treating head and neck cancer for about five years.  Her work, funded in part by seed-money from the university’s MCubed program, was showcased at this year’s MCubed Symposium on the U-M campus.  The program fosters interdisciplinary collaboration with startup funding for novel, high-risk research projects that may transform society.

Kapila says her research shows that nisin inhibits head and neck squamous cell carcinomas and extends survival in animal models.  Nisin induces apoptosis, programmed cell death, and decreases cell proliferation in head and neck cancer cells by activating CHAC1, a protein that prompts the death of cancer cells.

Nisin also inhibits angiogenesis, the growth and development of new blood vessels.  Although chemical signals within the body control angiogenesis to stimulate the formation of new blood vessels, sometimes angiogenesis promotes benign tumor behavior.  Nisin’s chemical and biological features may also inhibit the negative effects of that transformation.

“Given nisin’s long-term track record of being safe for human consumption and its use as a food preservative, our next step may be limited use of nisin in a clinical setting to determine its efficacy in humans,” Kapila says.  She is working to obtain funding from the National Institutes of Health to conduct further research to determine if nisin may be a possible anti-cancer treatment in humans.