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
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