An EU-funded research project is working to overcome current chemotherapy-related challenges, developing a new method which directs drug delivery exclusively to tumours, increasing effectiveness while avoiding side effects. Trials of the new treatment are planned for 2013 and industrial partners are keen to commercialise the biotechnologies resulting from the project.
Latest Eurostat figures show cancer is still a major cause of death across the EU-27, with about 167 fatalities per 100 000 inhabitants in 2010. The most common forms included malignant 'neoplasms' of the larynx, trachea, bronchus and lung, colon and breast.
Fortunately, cancer treatments are continually improving, and while the risk remains unacceptably high, a diagnosis of cancer no longer means the end of the road. But today's cancer treatments still present problems, including unpleasant and sometimes dangerous side effects.
Coordinated by the Institute for Medical Science and Technology (IMSaT) at the University of Dundee, the EU-funded Nanoporation project is developing a new treatment method that solves some chemotherapy-related problems, by concentrating drug delivery only where it is needed.
"Cancer is one of the most common causes of death in the EU," says project coordinator Andreas Melzer. "Our aim is to fight this deadly disease using a non-invasive therapeutic solution based on nano-capsules and focused ultrasound drug-delivery techniques."
As IMSaT Director, Dr Melzer coordinates a multinational team made up of young and senior researchers around 10 of them are Marie Curie fellows based in Israel and Scotland.
Conventional chemotherapy involves the administration of toxic chemical substances that damage rapidly dividing cells, a hallmark of cancer cells. But because these substances also permeate the whole body, they likewise damage healthy cells that divide rapidly, such as blood cells and cells lining the mouth and gastrointestinal tract.
Under the Nanoporation technique, anti-cancer substances are placed inside advanced nano-capsules that then deliver the substances only when focused ultrasound is applied.
"This means we can activate delivery in very specific areas, explains Dr Melzer. "Magnetic-resonance-guided, focused ultrasound is applied to the tumour itself, inducing cell membranes to open and the nano-capsules to unload the drug, thus crossing cell barriers that often make tumours impenetrable. The nano-capsules are destroyed and subsequently metabolised. The drug kills the cancer cells, whilst nano-capsules in the rest of the body remain inactive and are extracted via the kidney, preventing healthy cells from being exposed."
Harmful side effects eliminated
Typical side effects of chemotherapy include bone-marrow suppression, hair loss, nausea and vomiting, diarrhea, inability to concentrate, and others. Dr Melzer says his team hopes to reduce these side effects and increase the efficacy of chemotherapy at the same time.
This would result in higher survival rates and better quality of life for patients. "The aim is to reduce most of the classic symptoms we see as side effects of chemotherapy, through enhanced focal concentration of anti-cancer drugs at the tumour site.
"We are planning to target various cancers; pancreatic, breast and liver cancers are first on the list, with brain cancer as an additional potential target."
According to Dr Melzer, Nanoporation has established clear evidence that the new technique works. In its 2011 mid-term review, the project was flagged as a success story and it was stated that the new technique of focused ultrasound delivery of chemotherapy works. New experiments are now being conducted with mice, and human clinical trials are expected to be launched in 2014.
The scientist says the project has truly been a team effort. "We have put in place cutting-edge biomedical technologies, bringing in a company that develops ultrasound equipment and a producer of drug-delivery systems based on nano-capsules. Our two industrial partners, both based in Israel, are now laying plans to commercialise the results."
As regards EU-support received by the Nanoportation project, Dr Melzer says: "The Marie Curie Actions are absolutely fantastic. I needed funding and I needed highly qualified researchers. I got what I needed. It is definitely a great programme."