The Week That Wasn't: Students' Cancer Drug, Red Wine Microbiome, Vaccine Patch

Ellie Kincaid

Disclosures

September 02, 2019

You may have recently seen news articles about pharmacy students who invented a brain cancer drug, red wine increasing gut microbiome diversity, and a skin patch vaccine for melanoma. Here's why you didn't see them on Medscape. 

Preclinical Compound for Brain Cancer

Student researchers at the University of Findlay College of Pharmacy in Findlay, Ohio, got a lot more publicity than most student projects do for their work to identify a chemical compound that appears promising in the very earliest of scientific tests for use against glioblastoma. Associate professor and medicinal chemist Rahul Khuspe, PhD, supervised the student researchers as they synthesized and tested compounds on cancer cells. One compound, which the researchers named "RK15," performed best on the tests, and a local TV news spot called it a "breakthrough." 

It's easy to understand why a feel-good story like this — local students make progress toward a treatment for brain cancer — gets traction. But because the students' experiments haven't been described in a peer-reviewed scientific paper, and the promising compound hasn't even been tested in animals yet (let alone humans), we didn't consider it ready for primetime coverage. Many compounds at this stage of development will not make it to approval as drugs. 

Red Wine for Your Microbiome?

A study published as a pre-proof in the journal Gastroenterology involved both the supposed health benefits of red wine and the microbiome, two items on our buzzy health news BINGO card. Scientists compared a score of the diversity of bacteria present in the gut microbiota of 916 female twins in the United Kingdom with the participants' self-reported alcohol consumption. Those who reported drinking red wine had higher diversity scores than those who didn't, and the researchers replicated this finding in two other participant cohorts. 

Two key things to consider about this study: It relied on participants' memory of their consumption of red wine, and finding an association does not mean finding a causal link. As the authors of the paper note, randomized controlled trials "are needed (but highly unlikely)" to determine a causal relationship between drinking red wine and gut microbiome diversity. Given the well-known health risks of drinking alcohol, even if such a clinical trial was done it would be unlikely to shift the weight of the scientific evidence enough to change public health recommendations about drinking. This observational study certainly doesn't, so we didn't think Medscape readers needed to know about it. 

Melanoma Microneedle Patch

In research presented at the 2019 American Chemical Society meeting, MIT scientists described a skin patch with microneedles they engineered to deliver a vaccine targeted at the cancer cells of melanoma. They tested a version of the patch with a chicken antigen as a proof-of-concept study in mice and surgical samples of human skin, and developed a version with a melanoma antigen they next plan to test on melanoma tumors in mice. 

Developing a vaccine to treat cancer from scratch is ambitious enough, let alone doing so with a novel delivery mechanism like a skin patch with microneedles. Without even animal data on the vaccine patch's performance against melanoma, this research is too preliminary to be clinically relevant for Medscape readers. There are many more scientific hurdles ahead, any of which might keep this patch from crossing the finish line and becoming something physicians can consider prescribing.

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