Every cancer follows its own complex path. An EU-funded project is developing experimental tools and a computer model to generate and test ideas on the combined impact of the body's cell and chemical processes on cancer progress. The findings should one day help researchers and SMEs find better-targeted drugs faster.
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Scientists and doctors are learning more about how cancers develop. In particular, more is now known about individual cell and chemical processes in a cancer’s progression, and the impact of genetic and environmental factors. What is missing is a picture of how these all interact to influence an individual cancer’s progress.
The CanPathPro project is developing advanced lab and computer tools to evaluate predictions on how cells divide and multiply in response to a series of such processes. The tools will be combined in a prototype computer platform to identify the body’s networks of signals linked to cancer and to produce theories about them, using CanPathPro’s own data and data from other sources.
“Cancer is a complex disease, and every cancer is different,” says project coordinator Bodo Lange of German SME Alacris Theranostics GmbH. “CanPathPro will develop a validated, easy-to-use virtual test bench to develop theories and test experimental hypotheses efficiently.”
He adds that one tumour often contains cells with different qualities and genes. A minority of cells can resist treatment, causing relapse. “We want to model these different cells so doctors can one day find a drug or drug combination that treats the whole tumour.”
The project began in March 2016. Its researchers are already collecting data on genetic alterations that can be linked to changes in cell processes, which genes are expressed and the different kinds of proteins in cells, along with other information. To do this, they are using advanced analytic techniques – for genome sequencing and analysing molecules in cells, for example. They are also studying the impacts of different factors in 3D cell systems (cell cultures with height as well as width and breadth) and specially designed mice.
The project partners are currently developing and refining the computer model and have established a database that can track, store and link together the different types of data the model requires. Along with CanPathPro’s own results, the database will include data from public databases of similar types of information.
The model will enable researchers and drug companies to estimate the impact of a genetic mutation or a drug treatment on a cancer – all in a virtual world – or fine-tune existing experiments. This will help them focus their efforts on experiments that are most likely to produce useful results, save years of work and costs in drug development, and reduce numbers of animal experiments.
Lange points out that computer modelling has already revolutionised safety tests in engineering design. “Now is the right time to do this for biological systems.”
Another of CanPathPro’s aims is to produce outcomes that businesses could develop into products, says Lange, particularly the computer model platform. This could be developed into specialised platforms for research into biomedicine, drug development and cellular signalling.
Two of the project’s nine-member consortium are SME specialists in industries related to medical research and with a strong track record in commercialising scientific innovation, says Lange. They will develop a business and commercialisation plan to show how companies could use the project outcomes to generate new business and jobs.
Lange is positive about the project’s potential. “The commitment of all partners to the project is reflected in the level of communication and activity right from the start of the project.”
He adds that the EU funding under a Horizon 2020 call for technologies for biotechnology was essential. “This project would only be possible with this type of call.”