Doctors have used a cancer medication to treat sepsis in mice.

According to the Mayo Clinic, sepsis is when a bacterial infection makes its way into the bloodstream. If left untreated, sepsis can lead to tissue and organ death. Most people can usually recover from mild forms of sepsis. However, once septic shock sets in – the latter stage that involves altered mental status and reduced cardiac function – mortality rates increase to nearly 50 percent. According to figures from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, nearly 1.2 million people were hospitalized for sepsis in 2008 alone.

To more effectively combat the dangers of sepsis, researchers from the National Institutes of Health and the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai have experimented with a series of treatments. One of the more potent methods for beating sepsis comes from a most unlikely source: a cancer-fighting drug.

Stifling inflammation

The use of the topoisomerase inhibitor was recently outlined in the journal Science. According to the European Bioinformatics Institute, topoisomerase is an enzyme used to modify bits of DNA, which many cancers depend on to spread and replicate. Chemoth.com explained that a topoisomerase inhibitor is relatively straightforward: it effectively neutralizes any cells that have mutated or are in the process of, thus preventing replication.

The team from the NIH and the Icahn School began experimenting with camptothecin, a leading form of topoisomerase inhibitor. The collective worked with laboratory mice that developed a lethal inflammatory response caused by the Staphylococcus aureus bacterial strain. After a series of one to three doses, 70 to 90 percent of the infected lab mice had all but recovered from the otherwise dangerous level of sepsis.

And while human trials have yet to begun, the researchers did use camptothecin on human cells that had their immune system suppressed by a modified form of the Ebola virus. The human cell results had a similar level of success as the lab mice, suggesting that the suppression of the topoisomerase enzyme could help treat what the NIH describes as an “exacerbated inflammatory response.”

Tread with caution

The NIH added that while more research will be conducted, topoisomerase inhibitors could work to address sepsis related to any number of infections. That’s especially true for people with chronic conditions like diabetes, or young people and the elderly, as these demographics have a higher risk of developing sepsis.

Despite the exciting results, scientists will have to remain cautious. Speaking with Science magazine, Murat Kaynar of the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine said he’s seen plenty of sepsis treatments go to human trials only to fail. However, he added that he finds the work of the NIH and the Icahn School especially encouraging.

 

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