Sweetening the bitter pill of cancer treatment
Despite a massive research effort, cancer is still a major killer in Europe. European researchers are working on a sugar-based drug-delivery system which they believe will boost the potency of anti-cancer drugs, helping them reach and destroy cancerous cells more effectively. The project team has developed particles tiny enough to invade cancer cells and deliver treatments to the very heart of the tumour.
Potent anti-cancer drugs exist, but they struggle to distinguish between normal, healthy cells and the dangerous tumour cells. New targeted drug-delivery strategies are needed. With the help of EU funding, the Cyclon project is developing biocompatible sugar-based drug-delivery systems that could lead to a breakthrough in the fight against various cancers. The research teams are working on anti-cancer drug-delivery systems based on ‘cyclodextrins’ – a type of sugar that can be produced from potatoes, wheat, corn or rice by using 'enzymes' (molecules responsible for chemical conversions).
Hydrophobic (water-repellent) molecules encapsulated in cyclodextrins are able to penetrate body tissues. This helps the drug hone in on tumour sites, control the release of therapeutic compounds and enhance the efficiency of the treatment.
“The decorating of nanoparticles [very tiny particles] with cyclodextrins allows us to play with the functionality, drug load and the structure of delivery systems,” says project coordinator Dr Konstantina Yannakopoulou. “We can use the cyclodextrins to mask the drug-carrying particles or deliver them in a different way so that we can reach specifically targeted areas and fool the resistance mechanism of the tumours.”
A decorated approach
Dr Yannakopoulou says that progress in delivery efficiency has already been made through decorating nanoparticles with cyclodextrins combined with ‘Enhanced Permeability and Retention’ (EPR) – the property by which certain sizes of molecules circulate longer in the blood and thus tend to accumulate in tumour tissue much more than they do in normal tissues.
“We have been able to play with the sizes of nanoparticles to make them big enough to get into the tumour cells, or design them to become biodegradable and bear a high drug payload,” she explains. “They can even incorporate molecules with a capability for photo-stimulated killing for combined chemo- and photo- therapy as well as imaging.”
Dr Yannakopoulou adds that exploration into the ability of specific cyclodextrins to deliver anti-cancer drugs while overcoming resistance mechanisms is now under way.
The project is also providing nine early-stage researchers at PhD level and four post-doctorate experienced researchers with the opportunity to work alongside the Cyclon team in this challenging field of research into anti-cancer treatment.
“The young researchers are being involved in the whole process and are gaining valuable knowledge in many aspects of drug delivery for cancer treatment development,” Dr Yannakopoulou says.
“Through secondments, training events and lab research, they are very active in Cyclon’s work and will be valuable, multi-expertise researchers in the field by the end of their training.”