An Open University science student has astonished the world of medicine with a theory that could help to cure diseases including cancer.
The 40-year-old project manager Gary Smith was learning about inflammation as part of an OU course Molecules in Medicine when he struck on a hypothesis so extraordinary that it could have implications for the treatment of almost every inflammatory disease – including Alzheimers, Parkinson’s, rheumatoid arthritis and even HIV and AIDS.
His theory is so potentially ground-breaking that it has attracted attention from doctors and medical researchers from as far afield as America, Russia and China.
The news appears in the current issue of sesame, the Open University’s new-look magazine for 214,000 Open University around the world.
Gary’s theory questions the current wisdom that when a person gets ill, the inflammation that occurs around the infected area helps it to heal. The MSc student claims that in reality, inflammation prevents the body recognising a foreign substance and therefore serves as a “hiding place” for “invaders”.
The inflammation occurs when the at-risk cells produce receptors called AT1 (scientifically known as angiotensin II type 1 receptors). But while AT1 has a balancing receptor (AT2) which is supposed to switch the inflammation off, he says that in most diseases this does not happen.
“If we could halt AT1 with an existing type of drug known as an angiotensin receptor blocker,” said Gary, “then we can not only switch off the inflammation but also allow the body to recognise disease through either normal means or by helping the body with cancer vaccines, drugs whose effectiveness is currently blocked by the inflammation.”
The Coventry-based student, who has been studying with the OU on and off for 20 years, says his theory could change the approach to treating such diseases. “Cancer has been described as the wound that never heals and justifiably so,” he said. “All successful cancers are surrounded by inflammation. Commonly this is thought to be the body’s reaction to try to fight the cancer, but this is not the case.”
OU Chemistry lecturer Dr Sotiris Missailidis recognised the potential of Gary’s theory and worked with the student to produce a review article that was published in the Journal of Inflammation – believed to be the first time work from the OU’s MSc’s in Science programme has appeared in a refereed journal.
The theory has already received a lot of attention from the scientific community – not least because of its additional potential impact on infectious diseases. “This is the even more exciting bit,” said Gary, “infections such as MRSA, the common cold, the flu, herpes, HIV etc, also cause inflammation. The inflammation is not the body trying to fight the infection; it is actually the virus or bacteria deliberately causing inflammation in order to hide from the immune system. Blocking the inflammation with the same AT1 blockers not only stops the damage but also allows the body to fight the invader.
“It’s possible this could hold the key to beating so many conditions and illnesses,” he said. “I want people to know about it, and act upon it. If they do, it really could make a difference.”