Discovery paves the way for personalized cancer treatment: UAlberta medical research

Raquel Maurier - 15 November 2013

Dr. John Lewis

Prostate cancer researcher John Lewis and his team have discovered how to improve currently available cancer drugs so that the medication could be personalized for each individual patient.

Lewis, a researcher in the Faculty of Medicine & Dentistry, published his team's findings in the peer-reviewed journal, ACS Combinatorial Science, earlier this year. He worked with colleagues from Western University in Ontario and the University of Alberta on the project.

In the article, the team outlines a breakthrough in how current drug treatments could be improved.

"We've developed a screening technology that uses living cancer cells to create custom-targeted cancer drugs," said lead author Choi-Fong Cho. "This opens up the opportunity to take tumour cells from patients and create drugs that can be specifically used against each patient's cancer cells. We could take existing cancer drugs and tweak them to directly home in on each patient's cancer."

Lewis explained that each cancer is like a lock for which we don't have a key. This screening technology could be used to look for unique strings of amino acids that recognize a patient's cancer cells -"like sifting through a big bag of 8 billion keys" to find the one that works for each patient. Currently existing drugs can then be adapted to target just the cancer cells, and not healthy cells.

Further research is needed to see if patients with certain types of cancers have the same "keys" or biomarkers, so that one adapted drug could treat prostate cancer patients, or pancreatic cancer patients, as an example.

But each adapted drug needs to be evaluated with clinical trials, cautioned Lewis. However, "cancer research and treatment is headed in the direction of personalized medicine, so the approval process may become more streamlined in the future."

Lewis and his team are continuing their research in this area. They are starting to recruit patients for the screening part of their research, to see how many unique "keys" or markers are found in the cells of cancer patients and if the markers vary with different types of cancer.

The authors included Choi-Fong Cho of the University of Alberta and Babak Behnam Azad and Leonard Luyt of Western University. Their research was funded by Prostate Cancer Canada, in part with funds raised during the Movember campaign, and the Ontario Institute of Cancer Research.