Health  

Jelly made of alcohol could help kill off cancer

* Implant releases ethanol to destroy malignant cells

A jelly-like implant filled with pure alcohol could be a powerful treatment for cancer.

The implant is injected into the middle of a tumour, where it slowly releases tiny amounts of ethanol — the pure alcohol that makes up, for example, 12 to 14 per cent of wine.

As it comes into contact with tumour cells, the ethanol destroys them by ‘poisoning’ vital proteins the cells need to replicate.

The results, published recently in the journal Scientific Reports, showed the tumours completely disappeared in the seven mice given the implant, whereas only four out of seven injected with alcohol saw tumours disappear.

Doctors have long known ‘drowning’ cancer cells in pure alcohol can be an effective way of killing them. The problem is the alcohol also destroys healthy surrounding tissue, and it takes relatively large amounts of alcohol to completely eradicate tumour cells, exposing normal cells to its toxic effects.

As a result, its use has been confined to cancers where the tumour is contained within a fibrous capsule that prevents the alcohol leaking out, such as small liver tumours. In this case, a needle is passed through the skin under local anaesthetic to squirt alcohol into the cancerous cells.

The revolutionary implant, developed at Duke University, in North Carolina, has so far only been tested on animals, but could mean alcohol is used more widely to wipe out most tumours.

Scientists mixed ethanol with ethyl cellulose, a substance made from wood pulp or cotton that is widely used as a thickening agent in the food industry and to coat medicines. The result was a firm, jelly-like substance, which, once it comes into contact with the moist conditions inside the body, gradually starts to dissolve over the space of a week or so, releasing its alcoholic cargo.

The key is that it dissolves slowly, so small amounts of alcohol are released into the area of the tumour — rather than ‘flooding’ the area and neighbouring healthy cells with injected alcohol.

To test it, scientists implanted the gel into seven mice with malignant tumours in the mouth and measured the size of the cancerous growth after eight days.

Researchers said the amount of alcohol in the gel implant was a fraction of that needed when injected, reducing the amount of possible damage to healthy cells.

Scientists say the gel could potentially be used to treat other cancers, such as breast, and are planning trials to treat pre-cancerous lesions on the cervix.

One of the biggest advantages is that the treatment could be very cheap, as ethanol costs less than £1.50 a gallon.

Dr. Justine Alford, of Cancer Research UK, said: “Scientists have already harnessed ethanol as a treatment for some cancers. In this study, they tweaked the technique to stop it leaking out from the tumour. If trials show it is safe and effective, it could be an option in the future for some cancers where surgery isn’t possible.”

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