Antibiotics effective in treating melanoma

melanoma cells
© Zhykova

Researchers at KU Leuven have discovered that certain antibiotics appear to be effective in treating a form of skin cancer known as melanoma

Researchers from KU Leuven examined the effects of antibiotics, used in bacterial infection, on patient-derived melanoma tumours in mice and found that they targetted the ‘power plants’ of cancer cells.

These antibiotics exploit a vulnerability that arises in melanoma cells when they try to survive cancer therapy.

Cancer researcher and RNA biologist Eleonora Leucci from KU Leuven explained:

“As the cancer evolves, some melanoma cells may escape the treatment and stop proliferating to ‘hide’ from the immune system. These are the cells that have the potential to form a new tumour mass at a later stage.

Antibiotics for cancer treatment

“In order to survive the cancer treatment, however, those inactive cells need to keep their ‘power plants’ – the mitochondria – switched on at all times. As mitochondria derive from bacteria that, over time, started living inside cells, they are very vulnerable to a specific class of antibiotics. This is what gave us the idea to use these antibiotics as anti-melanoma agents.”

“The antibiotics quickly killed many cancer cells and could thus be used to buy the precious time needed for immunotherapy to kick in. In tumours that were no longer responding to targeted therapies, the antibiotics extended the lifespan of – and in some cases even cured – the mice.

“The cancer cells show high sensitivity to these antibiotics, so we can now look to repurpose them to treat cancer instead of bacterial infections.

Human trials

“Our findings are based on research in mice, so we don’t know how effective this treatment is in human beings. Our study mentions only one human case where a melanoma patient received antibiotics to treat a bacterial infection, and this re-sensitised a resistant melanoma lesion to standard therapy.

“This result is cause for optimism, but we need more research and clinical studies to examine the use of antibiotics to treat cancer patients. Together with oncologist Oliver Bechter (KU Leuven/UZ Leuven), who is a co-author of this study, we are currently exploring our options.”

The findings of the study have been published in the Journal of Experimental Medicine.


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