A team from University of Alberta and the Alberta Cancer Foundation are coming together to develop a new approach to fighting cancer that they hope will transform treatment and improve outcomes for patients.
The team is working on molecules that could to be used in immunotherapy to stimulate the body's immune system to naturally attack cancerous tumours.
Immunotherapy is currently one of the most promising areas of cancer research. The approach uses proteins and vaccines to try to stimulate the immune system to recognize tumours as “foreign agents” and destroy them.
Malignant tumours are often able to grow because they have deactivated the body's T cells, which act as the soldiers of the immune system, detecting bad cells and destroying them.
The small molecules the team from Alberta are working on would attack tumours by targeting specific binding sites on the surface of the T cells, called immune checkpoints, to jump-start them into fight mode.
Khaled Barakat, a research assistant professor in the Faculty of Pharmacy and Pharmaceutical Sciences at the University of Alberta, is leading the research project, which is called the Immune Checkpoint Program.
Barakat says because their approach could be used on many types of cancer, the resulting treatment would be like a "magic drug."
"I hope I can find a solution that can target many cancers at the same time," he told CTV News.
Barakat expects the new approach will cause few side effects, because the molecules would be in the body for only a short time. That should prevent the immune system from beginning to attack the patients' own cells.
“These small molecules will have a shorter stay in the blood, allowing the immune system to not be over activated while reducing side effects,” he said in a statement.
In addition, they would be cheaper to make than current immunotherapy approaches, which should reduce costs to the health-care systems, says Myka Osinchuk of the Alberta Cancer Foundation.
"The hope for this kind of research is that we will be able to have more effective treatments, we'll be able to have more cost effective treatments and treatments with fewer side effects."
Under a partnership deal announced Wednesday Barakat will be joined by a "dream team" of researchers from the areas of oncology, virology, immunology, pharmaceutical sciences, and more.
"When I was assembling this team it was basically the greatest achievement of my life," he said Wednesday.
The Alberta Cancer Foundation has invested $2.4 million in this research program. The University of Alberta’s Li Ka Shing Institute of Virology has also contributed $3 million.
The team hopes to have a “lead structure”— meaning, a drug that that needs only small tweaking —in place by the end of the second year of the project. They will then begin seeking a pharmaceutical partner, to develop the lead structure into a drug. If all goes well, human trials could begin as early as 2020.
With a report from CTV Edmonton's Carmen Leibel