Bad sausage toxin possible treatment for cancer?

In 19th century Wüttermberg, Germany, people were dying from eating bad sausages, and district medical officer Kerner sought to find out why. The condition they were dying from was botulism, a paralytic illness, and Kerner discovered that it was caused by the toxin produced by a bacteria called Clostridium botulinum. Even in 1822, Kerner surmised that the toxin, which acts by blocking nerve action, could have, in minimal doses, therapeutic uses.

Botox (BBC, SPL)

Botox (BBC, SPL)

I doubt Kerner could ever have imagined that the toxin, now known commercially as Botox, would be routinely injected into the faces of millions of people every year to even out their wrinkles. Given that Botox is the most poisonous substance we know of, with an LD50 of a miniscule 0.000001 mg/kg in humans, this is even more startling.

Botox is best known for its cosmetic uses, but nerve-blocking action of the toxin has been investigated for many other uses, probably more plausible to Kerner, such as treating migraines and abnormal sweating. And the latest study published into potential therapeutic uses of Botox suggests that cancer could be next on its hit list.

The study found that nerves are implicated in helping stomach cancer to grow through releasing signaling chemicals, and research in mice found that Botox can be used to kill those nerves and thus stem the growth of the tumour. This subsequently leaves the cancer more vulnerable to chemotherapy.

vagus nerve

Vagus nerve (wikipedia)

By cutting or using Botox on the vagus nerve, which runs from the brain to the digestive system, researchers found they could prevent stomach tumours from growing larger. Cutting the vagus nerve is a very invasive procedure, so using Botox to block the signaling chemicals could be a promising alternative.

Interrupting nerves, by cutting or using Botox, isn’t going to cure cancer. But it does have the potential to make tumours, especially those like stomach cancer which are less sensitive to chemotherapy, easier to treat. It’s still very early days, but, as ever, it is encouraging that science is looking at the treatment of cancer from many different angles, and constantly making new discoveries that could one day lead to better prognoses for sufferers.

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