Imagine a doctor eyeing just-received lab results turning to his patient and saying, “You have mesothelioma. Take two of these pills and call me in the morning.”
Preposterous? Maybe not. New research published last week in the journal Nature hints that treating mesothelioma and other cancers could someday involve little more than swallowing a few tablets to decrease the amount of copper in your blood.
What the study authors found is that excessive copper fuels runaway growth of certain tumor cells. These are cells that were triggered by a mutation in a specific type of gene common to cancers affecting the lungs and skin.
If the cancer is not caused by this particular gene mutation, then the amount of copper in the blood does not appear to matter much, according to the researchers.
BRAF Gene Mutation
The gene of interest in this investigation — conducted by a team from Duke University School of Medicine — is labeled BRAF.
Says Duke pharmacology and cancer biology professor Christopher M. Counter, Ph.D., senior author of the study, “BRAF-positive cancers almost hunger for copper.”
BRAF-mutation cancers require abundant copper to help maintain their out-of-control metabolism, the research indicates. The Duke scientists theorize that the cancer cells’ metabolic functions can be shut down by curtailing copper absorption.
Shut down the metabolic functions of a cancer cell and it stops growing. Then it dies, the researchers say.
The question is: How to restrict copper absorption?
Borrowing from Wilson Disease Treatment
The researchers suggest one easy way. It would be to administer to cancer patients oral medications normally prescribed to treat a condition known as Wilson disease.
Wilson disease is a genetic disorder that allows excessive copper to build up in the tissues of several organs, mainly the brain and liver. The disease is only sometimes fatal, depending on how badly compromised the brain and liver become.
Three medications are approved to treat Wilson disease. The first is penicillamine. It activates within the body a chemical process called chelation. The process draws copper from the blood and tissues, binds it (rendering it useless), and then harmlessly removes it through urine.
However, some patients don’t tolerate penicillamine. They are given instead trientine hydrochloride, which works much the same way.
Once copper levels are normalized, Wilson disease patients are maintained on zinc acetate. This medication promotes the growth of a bodily protein that naturally causes copper chelation.
Clinical Trial Gearing Up
The Duke researchers tested Wilson disease drugs on cancer-stricken lab mice. They were encouraged by the results — enough so that they now are gearing up to begin a clinical trial in human melanoma victims. However, no call for enrollments has been issued yet.
The researchers stressed that copper in the blood does not cause the BRAF gene to mutate. Dietary copper, as other experts note, is an essential element of good health. Natural sources of copper include liver, shrimp, crab, lobster, dried fruits, nuts, mushrooms and chocolate.
But apparent from the Duke study is an implied risk for mesothelioma patients that over-consumption of copper-rich foods encourages explosive growth of the cancer.
Whether or not this is the case, most authorities agree that a correctly balanced diet is essential to your fight against mesothelioma. As such, you should consult a registered dietitian or nutritionist to ensure that you are eating properly.
But, more importantly, you should rely on the expertise of your dietitian or nutritionist before attempting to adjust your copper intake through the foods you eat.