Meet the Can­cer Avengers who are us­ing rad­i­cal tech to erase the dis­ease.

A team of sci­en­tific su­per­heroes is de­vel­op­ing cut­ting-edge treat­ments to bat­tle breast can­cer. Nick Hard­ing re­ports

Friday - - Contents -

Meet the can­cer avengers – a pi­o­neer­ing group of med­i­cal su­per­heroes who have joined to­gether from around the world to de­velop the next gen­er­a­tion of cut­ting-edge can­cer treat­ments.

And the weapons they are work­ing with to help fight against the global can­cer men­ace could come straight from a sci-fi movie; they are learn­ing how to har­ness mi­cro­scopic smart bombs and pre­ci­sion-guided ra­di­a­tion beams to cre­ate the can­cer cures of the fu­ture.

The team com­prises 13 spe­cially se­lected re­search sci­en­tists. Each has a dif­fer­ent ex­per­tise and to­gether they are de­vel­op­ing treat­ments it is hoped will al­low doc­tors to tar­get tu­mours that were pre­vi­ously in­op­er­a­ble.

The pro­ject even has a sci-fi-sound­ing name. It is called Ar­gent and will run for three years, dur­ing which time the PhD re­searchers will in­ves­ti­gate how to use tiny par­ti­cles in ra­di­a­tion can­cer ther­apy.

Ar­gent is a col­lab­o­ra­tion be­tween the aca­demic com­mu­nity and the pri­vate sec­tor. Sev­eral tech­nol­ogy com­pa­nies in­clud­ing CheMat­ech and NanoH in France, which work in the field of nan­otech­nol­ogy, and soft­ware com­pa­nies MBN Re­search Cen­tre in

Frank­furt and Quan­tumWise in Copenhagen, are in­volved in the work. Re­searchers are spread through­out Europe, work­ing in univer­sity lab­o­ra­to­ries in the UK, France, Ger­many and Spain.

The Ar­gent team is work­ing at the fron­tier of science with nan­otech­nol­ogy, which is the science and en­gi­neer­ing of con­trol­ling mat­ter at the molec­u­lar scale to cre­ate de­vices with new and un­usual chem­i­cal, phys­i­cal and bi­o­log­i­cal prop­er­ties. They are in­ves­ti­gat­ing how to de­sign, man­u­fac­ture and ma­nip­u­late mi­nus­cule par­ti­cles – nanopar­ti­cles – which are larger than in­di­vid­ual atoms and mol­e­cules but smaller than bulk solids.

The Ar­gent pro­ject is over­seen by Pro­fes­sor Nigel Ma­son, OBE, of the Depart­ment of Phys­i­cal Sciences at The Open Univer­sity in the UK.

‘Ar­gent dif­fers from tra­di­tional re­search projects be­cause it is a mul­ti­dis­ci­plinary ap­proach com­bin­ing nan­otech­nol­ogy and ra­di­a­tion chem­istry to tackle a clin­i­cal prob­lem – how to treat a can­cer­ous tu­mour in a liv­ing or­gan­ism,’ he ex­plains. ‘In prin­ci­ple, all types of can­cer can be treated by a com­bi­na­tion of nanopar­ti­cle de­liv­ery and ra­dio­ther­apy, but the meth­ods Ar­gent is re­search­ing may be par­tic­u­larly use­ful in those can­cers that are al­ready treated by ra­dio­ther­apy.’

The Ar­gent pro­ject could solve one of the most dif­fi­cult prob­lems in mod­ern can­cer treat­ment, in­clud­ing breast can­cer.

Ra­di­a­tion ther­apy uses high-energy ra­di­a­tion to shrink tu­mours and kill can­cer cells. About half of all can­cer pa­tients re­ceive some type of ra­di­a­tion ther­apy some­time dur­ing the course of their treat­ment. Ra­di­a­tion ther­apy kills can­cer cells by dam­ag­ing them ei­ther di­rectly or by cre­at­ing charged par­ti­cles – also called free rad­i­cals – within the cells that can in turn dam­age the DNA. Can­cer cells whose DNA is dam­aged be­yond re­pair stop di­vid­ing or die. When the dam­aged cells die, they are bro­ken down and elim­i­nated by the body’s nat­u­ral pro­cesses.

How­ever, ra­di­a­tion does not dis­tin­guish be­tween healthy and un­healthy tis­sue and some­times the side ef­fects of ra­di­a­tion treat­ment are worse than the ef­fects of the can­cer it is treat­ing. Acute side ef­fects in­clude los­ing hair, fa­tigue, nau­sea and skin ir­ri­ta­tion or dam­age where skin has been ex­posed to the ra­di­a­tion beams. Other side ef­fects can oc­cur weeks or even years af­ter ra­di­a­tion ther­apy. These can in­clude fi­bro­sis, bowel dam­age, mem­ory loss, in­fer­til­ity and some­times sec­ondary can­cers.

One of the aims of Ar­gent is to de­velop tech­niques that al­low doc­tors to use lower doses of ra­di­a­tion in com­bi­na­tion with in­cred­i­bly small nanopar­ti­cles (be­tween two and 10 nanome­tres), thereby pro­tect­ing healthy tis­sue and greatly ben­e­fit­ing pa­tients.

Says Prof Ma­son: ‘Nanopar­ti­cles may be used to tar­get can­cer cells since they are small enough to en­ter the cell it­self and may carry agents such as an­ti­bod­ies. A nanopar­ti­cle is so small that it can pass through the wall of a cell and once there can be tar­geted by ra­di­a­tion. If we can de­sign nanopar­ti­cles that are pref­er­en­tially taken up by can­cer cells we will have a ‘magic bullet’ that when ir­ra­di­ated will kill the can­cer cells and thus the can­cer­ous tu­mour, while pre­serv­ing healthy cells.

‘We can treat can­cer tu­mours in a more ef­fec­tive way and re­duce the over­all amount of ra­di­a­tion ap­plied to the pa­tient, min­imis­ing side ef­fects and other in­juries. Re­duc­ing dam­age to healthy tis­sue while killing the can­cer­ous tu­mour is the ul­ti­mate am­bi­tion of mod­ern can­cer ther­apy.

‘The pro­ject will also de­velop bet­ter mod­els of ra­di­a­tion-in­duced dam­age in cells to al­low ef­fec­tive and lower dose ra­dio­ther­apy to be de­liv­ered. If we can de­velop method­olo­gies for in­cor­po­rat­ing nanopar­ti­cles in the cell, we can in­duce the same can­cer cell death with smaller lev­els of ra­di­a­tion, hence low­er­ing side ef­fects in pa­tients.’

Can­di­dates for the Ar­gent pro­ject were cho­sen for their sci­en­tific ex­cel­lence, en­thu­si­asm and abil­ity to work as part of a team. Over 200 ap­plied from all around the world and Ar­gent now com­prises re­searchers from Viet­nam, Rus­sia, Aus­tralia, Nige­ria and In­dia as well as sev­eral Euro­pean na­tions.

Daria Bos­colo is a PhD stu­dent from Italy. ‘I knew about the pro­ject while I was al­ready per­form­ing my re­search on ad­vanced tech­niques for can­cer treat­ment and I im­me­di­ately de­cided that I wanted to be a part of it,’ she says. ‘I am work­ing in one of the lead­ing lab­o­ra­to­ries for the re­search on ion beam can­cer ther­apy and my work in Ar­gent is mainly fo­cused on ad­vanced ra­di­a­tion ther­apy tech­niques. In par­tic­u­lar, I am in­ter­ested in the un­der­stand­ing of the pro­cesses and mech­a­nism un­der­ly­ing ra­di­a­tion dam­age on a nanoscopic scale. This kind of knowl­edge is ab­so­lutely nec­es­sary if you want to im­prove the ef­fi­cacy and the selec­tiv­ity of can­cer ther­apy.’

She says that in­ter­na­tional projects

‘We can TREAT can­cer TU­MOURS in a MORE EF­FEC­TIVE way and RE­DUCE the over­all amount of RA­DI­A­TION ap­plied to the pa­tient, mini mis­ing SIDE EF­FECTS and other in­juries’

like Ar­gent are be­com­ing the norm, with globetrotting sci­en­tists trav­el­ling the world to de­velop ex­cit­ing new tech­nolo­gies that help mankind.

‘The in­ter­na­tional con­text is the main strength of the pro­ject. Nowa­days, es­pe­cially in the sci­en­tific en­vi­ron­ment, col­lab­o­ra­tion and mo­bil­ity through dif­fer­ent coun­tries and dif­fer­ent lab­o­ra­to­ries is be­com­ing eas­ier and nec­es­sary. The imag­i­nary fig­ure of the sci­en­tist locked in his lab­o­ra­tory, com­pletely de­tached from the world and the re­al­ity does not ex­ist any­more,’ she ex­plains.

Another re­searcher, Vu Long Tran, is orig­i­nally from Viet­nam and is now based at the In­sti­tute of Light and Mat­ter in Lyon, France. ‘The fact that we are com­ing from dif­fer­ent coun­tries and mov­ing from place to place makes the pro­ject ex­tremely in­ter­est­ing,’ he says. ‘We are ex­posed to dif­fer­ent cul­tures, dif­fer­ent ways of think­ing and learn many things from ev­ery place.’

Although the team is scat­tered across Europe, they use tech­nol­ogy to keep in con­stant con­tact with each other and ex­change in­for­ma­tion, ideas and find­ings. They re­cently met for a residential course in the UK and are build­ing close bonds in their com­mon mis­sion.

Vivek Thakare is a team mem­ber orig­i­nally from In­dia and now based in Di­jon in France at CheMat­ech. He is a trained phar­ma­cist with a back­ground on drug de­vel­op­ment. It is his role to study, re­search and un­der­stand can­cer drugs and their in­ter­ac­tions in the body.

‘I sin­cerely hope to of­fer some­thing and ad­vance the sci­en­tific sce­nario in the con­text of can­cer ther­apy and di­ag­no­sis through my work,’ he says. ‘Col­lab­o­ra­tion is the need of the hour in to­day’s com­pet­i­tive world be­cause in the end, it is the team ef­fort that mat­ters. To­gether you can foster and nur­ture in­no­va­tive ideas, cash­ing in on each other’s com­pe­ten­cies and ex­per­tise.’

The ul­ti­mate Ar­gent goal is to de­vel­op­ment pi­o­neer­ing tech­niques that will al­low doc­tors to treat dif­fi­cult-to-reach tu­mours by at­tack­ing them with mi­nus­cule tar­geted par­ti­cles that can de­liver can­cer an­ti­bod­ies in­side tu­mours or that can be ‘det­o­nated’ in­side the tu­mour with bursts of ra­di­a­tion. The pro­ject is funded by the Euro­pean Union and will cost £3m (Dh12.3m) and it is hoped it will have a global im­pact, not least in the UAE where can­cer rates are ris­ing. Ac­cord­ing to a Global Health Ac­tion re­port, his­tor­i­cally the UAE had a much lower in­ci­dence of can­cer than Western coun­tries, where it is mainly the sec­ond-big­gest killer af­ter coro­nary dis­ease.

How­ever, over the last 40 years the dra­matic eco­nomic, so­cial, and de­mo­graphic change in the Emi­rates has re­sulted in in­creased life ex­pectancy and pros­per­ity. This tran­si­tion has led to sig­nif­i­cant in­creases in the in­ci­dence of chronic non-com­mu­ni­ca­ble dis­eases, in­clud­ing can­cer, which is now the third lead­ing cause of death in the UAE (af­ter car­dio­vas­cu­lar dis­ease and in­jury) caus­ing 10 per cent of all deaths in 2010. In Abu Dhabi it is the sec­ond lead­ing cause and is re­spon­si­ble for 16 per cent of deaths.

As in many other coun­tries in the Mid­dle East, breast can­cer is the most com­mon can­cer in fe­males in the UAE. The true in­ci­dence is dif­fi­cult to re­port as the ma­jor­ity of the pop­u­la­tion is mi­gra­tory, says a re­port ti­tled Can­cers in the UAE. How­ever, a Min­istry of Health re­port said in 2013, 39 women had died of breast can­cer.

If Ar­gent’s work is suc­cess­ful, the num­ber of deaths due to can­cer could be dras­ti­cally re­duced. Part of its work in­volves build­ing and de­sign­ing com­plex com­puter sim­u­la­tion mod­els to pre­dict how ra­di­a­tion and nanopar­ti­cles will in­ter­act in­side hu­man tis­sue.

Although the ul­ti­mate aim is to de­velop a nan­oth­er­apy to be used in con­junc­tion with ra­di­a­tion, it is also hoped that as the pro­ject de­vel­ops the team will make other dis­cov­er­ies that will help strengthen ex­ist­ing can­cer treat­ments and could lead to new ther­a­pies not yet imag­ined.

And in the wider can­cer re­search com­mu­nity there are many more promis­ing can­cer treat­ments be­ing in­ves­ti­gated. A lot of these fall un­der the clas­si­fi­ca­tion of bi­o­log­i­cal ther­a­pies – treat­ments that act on pro­cesses in cells to stop them grow­ing and di­vid­ing. One such treat­ment is im­munother­apy, which has the po­ten­tial to be more ef­fec­tive – and in some cases less toxic – than ex­ist­ing op­tions.

It uses the body’s own nat­u­ral sys­tem to fight the dis­ease and may of­fer a life­line for pa­tients with cer­tain types of can­cer who have ex­hausted other treat­ments. Re­searchers and drug com­pa­nies are now rac­ing to cre­ate the best can­cer im­munother­apy treat­ments. Other bi­o­log­i­cal ther­a­pies work by tar­get­ing cer­tain pro­teins in can­cer cells or by stop­ping blood flow to tu­mours.

Can­cer re­mains a global killer. There are more than 100 types of the dis­ease, caused by fac­tors rang­ing from ra­di­a­tion to smok­ing, chem­i­cals and viruses. Cur­rently, 7.6 mil­lion peo­ple die from can­cer world­wide ev­ery year, out of which, 4 mil­lion peo­ple die pre­ma­turely. The fight to find the most ef­fec­tive way to treat this blight con­tin­ues.

And the tide is turn­ing. Lifestyle changes and ed­u­ca­tion about things such as diet and sun­screen have had an ef­fect on re­duc­ing rates of cer­tain can­cers in cer­tain coun­tries. Sur­vival rates of those di­ag­nosed with the dis­ease in de­vel­oped coun­tries are also in­creas­ing and a can­cer di­ag­no­sis is no longer a death sen­tence. With bril­liant young sci­en­tists such as the Ar­gent team at the fore­front of this revo­lu­tion, we can look for­ward to more suc­cesses in the fu­ture.

‘Sci­en­tific COL­LAB­O­RA­TION around the world is now KEY. The imag­i­nary fig­ure of the sci­en­tist LOCKED in his LAB, de­tached from the world, does NOT EX­IST any­more’

The Ar­gent team is work­ing on the ul­ti­mate goal of can­cer ther­apy – re­duc­ing dam­age to healthy tis­sue while killing tu­mours

Re­searchers are try­ing to ma­nip­u­late mi­nus­cule par­ti­cles to cre­ate the can­cer cure of the fu­ture

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