Medicine, Clinical Tests: EU trawls the seas for new cancer treatments
European researchers have dived to the depths of the oceans to come up with solutions to combat sarcomas – a rare type of deadly tumour – using chemicals extracted from a Caribbean sea squirt. EU funding is helping test this novel treatment across Europe.
Rare tumours known as sarcomas kill nearly 4 000 Europeans every year. Although they respond to painful chemotherapy, there is still no known cure for the condition. In a major medical breakthrough, European researchers – led by Spanish biotech firm PharmaMar – think they may have uncovered the answer.
Their research has found that ET-743 or yondelis, an alkaloid extracted from Ecteinascidia Turbinata, a type of Caribbean sea squirt, is effective against the deadly tumour. “This represents an important medical development in the treatment of certain cancers,” Research Commissioner Philippe Busquin observed.
The Commission has provided funding to establish clinical trials in 24 EU centres in seven European countries. Involving Dutch, French and Spanish participants, the project aims to test the efficacy of the new treatment. “Cancer kills more than 750 000 people a year. The EU is investing up to €400 million in cancer research over four years,” Mr Busquin explained. “But our investments will only bear fruit if researchers and funding agencies across Europe work together.”
A sea change
Sarcomas – Greek for ‘fleshy growths’ – attack the body’s connective tissues, including fat, blood vessels, nerves, bones and muscles. Some types of sarcomas can only be diagnosed by a surgical biopsy – analysing sample tissue from the tumour.
They are usually removed surgically, or treated with radiation and chemotherapy. Biological therapy, which stimulates the body’s immune system to fight cancer, is still being tried out clinically. Yondelis has shown early promise of helping patients for whom other treatments have failed.
In addition to acting as an alternative chemotherapeutic agent in cases where traditional therapies have limited impact, researchers hope that ET-743 will prove effective for other tumours, such as breast cancer which kills 130 000 European women each year.