Cancer is a complex, ever-changing opponent and today’s treatments can come with severe side effects. Maybe what the field needs now is a shot of innovation. Two researchers recently described for journalists their efforts to treat cancer differently: one, by taking advantage of the special properties of gold, on a very tiny scale; the other, by striking at the heart of the normal cells that make tumor growth possible.
Cet article est également disponible en français : Innover contre le cancer : des traitements aux approches différentes
Without a doubt, science has come a long way in understanding cancer. So, why does it remain so present in our lives? “Cancer is so complex. There are so many aspects,” Prof. Emmanuel Fort, physicist and holder of the AXA-ESPCI Chair in Biomedical Imaging, emphasized to journalists recently. Next to him at the Scientific Breakfast on Cancer hosted by the AXA Research Fund, Prof. Peter Carmeliet, a cancer researcher at the University of Leuven, agreed. Several years ago, his reaction to this fact was to say, “We could keep going in the same direction, but the tumor will just find another escape route. What if we did something more radical?”
Professors Peter Carmeliet and Emmanuel Fort
A Recipe for “Cooking” Cancer
On this January morning in Paris, the two researchers presented to members of the press their work supported by the AXA Research Fund, which does, indeed, approach cancer treatment differently. Emmanuel Fort is pursuing an innovative, interdisciplinary and, today, highly promising line of research aimed at treating tumors by “cooking” them. As a specialist of optics, it’s only natural that he is trying to treat cancer with light, along with a very special, very small ingredient that makes that possible. At the nanoscale (one-billionth of a meter), gold, silver and other such metals have unique properties, including interacting strongly with light. When you shine a particular wavelength on metal nanoparticles—which can be 50 times smaller than a red blood cell—they absorb the light, causing them to heat up. If the nanoparticles are lodged in a tumor at the time, they can destroy it, effectively cooking it from the inside.
At the nanoscale, gold has unique properties.
Because tumors tend to be laced with an unusual number of blood vessels, nanoparticles injected into the bloodstream will also end up concentrated here. Fort and his team can then activate the heating process with a kind of light capable of passing through the body’s tissues, like near-infrared wavelengths. The nanoparticles—which might be made of silica coated with gold, for example—are designed with the right size and shape to interact efficiently with the chosen wavelength.
Clinical trials of this technique are now underway in the United States, for neck and brain cancers, while Prof. Fort’s team is concentrating on kidney cancer. Although he cautions that, given cancer’s complexity, it should be used in conjunction with other treatments, he notes that the new technique is showing very good results.
Striking the Cellular Engine
Peter Carmeliet sees similar promise in a project that his lab has built from the ground up. Cancer cells, he explained, release different molecules to encourage the growth of blood vessels needed to feed the growing tumor. Much research focuses on blocking this process, but cancer has a way of getting around the hurdles we impose. Prof. Carmeliet gives the analogy of a car: if you remove the vehicle’s driver, it can simply be replaced by another. However, if you could disrupt the very engine of the car, it would come to a screeching halt.
For the Carmeliet lab, the car is the endothelial cells (ECs) making up the new blood vessels under construction. The engine is the cells’ metabolism powering their every move. Cells use a specific process to break down the sugar glucose for energy and ECs, explains Prof. Carmeliet, are positively “addicted to glucose.” Blocking this process—removing their source of energy—has already seen success with certain EC-related conditions, like eye disease. His lab is the first to apply the technique to cancer.
The logical question is whether this treatment will have toxic effects on patients, since all cells of the body require glucose. In fact, the Belgian team found that its effect is only partial and temporary—perfect for cutting down specifically the activity of these blood vessel cells with their engines in overdrive.
On the new research field that this work has opened, Prof. Carmeliet said he sees it as a gold mine of opportunity for developing new cancer treatments. “So, we’ll keep working on it and hope a lot of other labs will jump on it, too. Cancer is an enemy that changes continuously,” he said. Which is why research must keep changing and innovating, too, to keep pace with this formidable opponent.
Image credit: "Gold-crystals" by Alchemist-hp (talk) www.pse-mendelejew.de - Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 de via Wikimedia Commons - https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Gold-crystals.jpg#mediaviewer/File:Gold-crystals.jpg