Yujiang Fang, M.D., Ph.D. — an academic pathologist and associate professor in the microbiology and immunology department at DMU — alongside Conner Willson, a May 2024 graduate of DMU’s osteopathic medicine program.

Study by DMU Researchers Shows Potential Cancer Therapy Breakthrough Using COVID-19 Vaccine-Related Spike Protein

In a groundbreaking study led by researchers at Des Moines University Medicine and Health Sciences, the SARS-CoV-2 spike protein, integral to COVID-19 vaccines, has shown promise as a novel approach to treating cervical cancer.  

This revelation builds upon earlier research at DMU that demonstrated the spike protein’s ability to diminish cancer cell survival rates in prostate cancer. The latest findings demonstrate similar inhibitory effects on cervical cancer cell growth. 

The research was spearheaded by Yujiang Fang, M.D., Ph.D. an academic pathologist and associate professor in the microbiology and immunology department at DMU — alongside Conner Willson, a May 2024 graduate of DMU’s osteopathic medicine program. Researchers at the University of Missouri School of Medicine also collaborated on the study. Their findings were published in Anticancer Research, a peer-reviewed scientific journal focused on cancer treatment and prevention research. 

The research team discovered that the spike protein of the SARS-CoV-2 virus can arrest the growth of cervical cancer cells and initiate cellular apoptosis (cell death). This happens because the spike protein increases the levels of specific molecules in the cells that prevent them from growing and promote their death. In simpler terms, the spike protein may act like a “stop” signal for the cancer cells, preventing them from growing and spreading.  
“These findings are important because they suggest that the spike protein might have a role in fighting cancer,” Fang says. “More research is needed to understand how it works fully and if it can be used as a treatment.” 

The original prostate cancer study, led by Fang and Brad Johnson, who will graduate from DMU in May 2024 with a degree in osteopathic medicine, showed that the spike protein could inhibit the growth of prostate cancer cells in vitro.  

Building on this foundation, the cervical cancer research team expanded their research to explore the effects of the spike protein on cervical cancer, a leading cause of oncological death among women globally. Results indicated a similar inhibitory effect on the growth of cervical cancer cells, unveiling the protein’s broader applicability against different forms of cancer.  

The newest study revealed that the SARS-CoV-2 spike protein inhibited the growth and proliferation of SiHa cancer cells, a widely used model for studying cervical cancer. The vaccine also induced cell death in SiHa cancer cells, further supporting the spike protein’s potential as a cancer therapy. 

The in vitro study used a clonogenic cell survival assay, a quick cell proliferation assay and caspase-3 activity kits in the SiHa cervical cancer line. These tests were chosen for their ability to measure cell survival, proliferation and apoptosis accurately. Other tests, such as RT-PCR and immunohistochemistry, were also performed to determine the potential molecular mechanisms. 

“These findings open up new avenues for cancer treatment, suggesting that the spike protein’s mechanism of promoting cell death while inhibiting cell proliferation could be harnessed across other types of cancer,” Fang says. “This represents a promising step forward for cancer patients worldwide. In addition to protecting individuals from COVID-19, an additional benefit of the vaccine could be a reduction in certain types of cancers.” 

A urologist who has performed numerous surgeries for prostate cancer, Fang has focused his research on cancer pathology, cancer immunotherapy and cancer radiation therapy. He’s produced more than 120 peer-reviewed journal articles, almost all of which he was the first author or corresponding author. He has also collaborated with researchers on DMU’s campus, in other states and in China. 

“Working on a project that involved the most highly discussed and prevalent topic in medicine — COVID-19 — was extremely exciting,” Willson says. “I enjoyed collecting and interpreting the data, attempting to piece together how the SARS-CoV-2 spike protein was interacting with this cervical cancer cell line. Brad Johnson was the lead author with Dr. Fang regarding prostate cancer and the SARS-CoV-2 spike protein. The overall effect of promoting apoptosis was seen in both of our results. Not only does this open so many new opportunities for research, but it also helps to lend credence to the conclusions we have made from our data.” 

A native of Phoenix, Arizona, Willson will begin a four-year anesthesiology residency program at Loma Linda University in June. 

Fang is grateful for the support of DMU leaders, especially Andrew Brittingham, Ph.D., department chair and professor of microbiology and immunology, and Pravin Mishra, Ph.D., M.B.A., executive director of research, who made this research and the following research possible. The next step for Fang’s research is animal studies, followed by a clinical trial. These studies will help to further validate the safety and efficacy of the spike protein as a possible cancer therapy. He is in the process of seeking grants to fund these studies. In the meantime, Fang and students in his lab are expanding the scope of his research by conducting in vitro studies on the effects of the SARS-CoV-2 spike protein on bladder, lung, brain and colon cancers. 

Contributing researchers from the University of Missouri, including Mark Wakefield, M.D., professor of surgery and urology, and Marco Lequio, Ziwen Zhu, Qian Bai, Emerson Fajardo, Huaping Xiao and Samuel Leung, played a crucial role in this study.  

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