Targeted treatment for colorectal cancer
EU-funded researchers have developed an efficient colorectal cancer treatment that can prevent relapses in patients post-surgery. It involves applying drugs that kill cancer cells directly to the tumour site, eliminating the need for unpleasant, ongoing injections that can cause side effects.
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The EU-funded CANCERHYDROGELPATCH project was launched in 2014 to investigate innovative new ways of preventing relapses after the surgical removal of colorectal tumours. The key success has been the development of a promising new therapy that targets very specific sites in the body.
The treatment involves administering drugs directly to the tumour through the application of a hydrogel. The drugs are dispensed not through injections but using existing colonoscopy equipment, with minor adaptations. The hydrogel remains in place at the tumour site, releasing the drugs as, and when, needed.
“Patients stand to benefit hugely from this work,” says project coordinator Helena Azevedo of the UK’s Queen Mary University of London. “Current chemotherapies use drugs that are typically applied intravenously in repeated doses, which can cause adverse side effects, such as chemical accumulation in organs not affected by the cancer.”
Azevedo adds that in order to target colorectal tumour cells, she and her team attached drugs to nanoparticles decorated with small molecules that then bound specifically to the surface of cancer cells.
“This promotes preferential drug uptake by these cells,” she adds.
The project team also made progress in developing therapies designed to promote the regeneration of impaired tissue after surgery.
Critical health issue
The CANCERHYDROGELPATCH project addressed a hugely important health issue that affects thousands of Europeans and places great pressure on Europe’s public health services.
“Despite the advances that have been made in diagnosing and treating colorectal cancer, this disease is still the second most deadly cancer in Europe affecting men and women,” says Azevedo. “This indicates that diagnoses and treatments may not be as effective as for other conditions.”
Given that colorectal cancer reoccurrences are relatively common, and because current diagnostic methods are not 100 % accurate, it is vital that patients undergo regular and complementary medical tests. This of course involves substantial costs and healthcare resources.
“Although patients can remain remissive for several months or years after treatment, cancer reoccurs in between 30 and 50 % of cases,” notes Azevedo. “The causes for relapses include the spreading of isolated cancer cells, the presence of cancer cells after surgery and resistance to chemotherapy.”
In order to address this, the project’s treatment combines three therapeutic approaches: gene therapy to silence oncogenes (genes that have the potential to cause cancer) involved in cancer progression; chemotherapy involving the release of a potent drug that stops growth of cancer cells; and thermal therapy that produces heat and kills cancer cells.
“We demonstrated that when this triple therapy was applied post-surgery, complete remission was achieved by destroying the remaining cancer cells and avoiding tumour regrowth,” Azevedo says.
The results of these trials have been published in leading journals such as Nature Materials.
Building upon success
The HYDROGELPATCH project approach will eventually enable the medical profession to provide more selective, effective and safer therapies to patients.
“However, despite the promising results in mice, further validation of these therapies in larger pre-clinical models is necessary before we moved onto humans,” notes Azevedo. “Furthermore, in order to turn these technologies into marketable medical products, the involvement of high tech medical SMEs will be key.”
The successes of the project which also involved João Conde who received funding through the EU’s Marie Skłodowska-Curie fellowship programme and was among the recipients of the 2017 Wellcome Image Awards for a related picture will now be built upon.
“Dr. Conde has consolidated research experience in the design and testing of nanobiomaterials for cancer treatment,” says Azevedo. “He is at the stage of establishing his own research group, and has defined plans on how to develop these therapies further.”