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New fund aims to fast-track personalised cancer therapy

Implanting cancer tissue from a patient to mice and studying how that tissue responds to various drugs can significantly speed the search for an effective, patient-specific therapy. Professors Frédéric Amant, Sabine Tejpar and colleagues have made important strides in implementing this ‘personalised’ model of cancer therapy. To bolster these efforts, they have established the new Fund for Innovative Cancer Research.

Implanting cancer tissue from a patient to mice and studying how that tissue responds to various drugs can significantly speed the search for an effective, patient-specific therapy. Professors Frédéric Amant, Sabine Tejpar and colleagues have made important strides in implementing this ‘personalised’ model of cancer therapy. To bolster these efforts, they have established the new Fund for Innovative Cancer Research.
New fund aims to fast-track personalised cancer therapy

Frédéric Amant and Sabine Tejpar | © KU Leuven - Rob Stevens

Cancer is incredibly complex. There are many hundreds of control mechanisms involved in cancer cell growth and many different therapies designed to inhibit them. Each tumour has its own unique characteristics, and this requires a highly specific approach.  

But how to know, as quickly and accurately as possible, which treatment is most likely to be effective?

Gynaecological oncologist Frédéric Amant: “Prevention, surgery, radiotherapy and chemotherapy have all proven their effectiveness. And yet, we are still a long way from curing cancer. Every year in Europe, approximately 3.2 million people are diagnosed with cancer. For some patients, a cure is feasible, for others, the prognosis is far less optimistic. That is the reality.”

“A cancer cell is an intelligent survivor. When anti-tumour drugs inhibit its growth, it seeks out alternative mechanisms to stay alive. Too often, we are forced to concede that existing treatment options for a particular patient are limited, inadequate or even non-existent.”

“But this is no reason to lose hope. Rather, it is all the more reason to redouble our fundraising efforts, research and therapies,” says Frédéric Amant.

Higher success rate

Gastrointestinal oncology specialist Sabine Tejpar: “Getting new drugs from the lab to the patient needs to happen more efficiently. In many cases, determining a therapy for a patient happens via a so-called cell line – tumour cells are grown in test tubes in the lab and researchers study their reactions to different medications. The problem with this model is that a drug that works on a test-tube sample doesn’t always work in the patient. In fact, in some cases the failure rate is above 90 percent.”

"With this testing model, the link between success in the lab and success in the patient is much stronger."

Meanwhile, the patient is often saddled with severe side effects. And a failed treatment can leave a heavy psychological toll. 

“We are moving away from cell lines in favour of a new model,” says Frédéric Amant. “With Patient-Derived Tumour Xenografts, or PDTX, the correlation between success in the lab and success in the patient is much greater. Eighteen months into the programme, we have already begun to see promising results.”

“A tumour xenograft is an implantation – a graft – of tumour tissue, which is implanted into a foreign body – hence xeno,” explains Frédéric Amant. “The tissue is allowed to grow in the foreign body – in our project, mice – until enough of it is available to use for testing medications.”

“In most cases, that process takes a year. This may seem like a long time, but in that time our researchers map the genetic and other characteristics of the tumour. This makes it possible to apply a highly personalised approach to treatment – one that is sorely needed.”

“Essentially, we are cloning the patient’s tissue in mice. Once a medication proves effective in the mice, the success rate in a patient with the same genetic characteristics is much higher.”

Future patients

Frédéric Amant: “An added plus is that the technique gives us clearer and more exhaustive information, and this in turn improves our understanding of many different kinds of cancer. We are looking for biomarkers – genetic characteristics that are unambiguously linked to a particular cancer’s success. This knowledge can be useful to many more patients with similar tumours, both today and in the future.”

Sabine Tejpar: “The PDTX platform still needs to expand. We are currently researching nine different tumour types, each of which has various subtypes. We are also eager to analyse rare tumour types. But to do this, we need significantly more resources.” 

Frédéric Amant: “As auspicious as the PDTX model is, it is certainly not a guaranteed game changer, no sure cure. But it's definitely a promising step.”

“But there is still a need for more fundamental and translational research. Unfortunately, we cannot always rely on traditional funding sources for support. So we are taking matters into our own hands by actively seeking out additional funds.”

“This is the impetus behind the recently established Fund for Innovative Cancer Research within the Department of Oncology. Through good communication, professional fundraising, a clear purpose and, above all, a viable project in PDTX, we will make significant progress in the fight to cure cancer.”

Ludo Meyvis and Jack McMartin

Click here for the Dutch-language version of this article.

You can support this fund by making a donation via bank transfer to KU Leuven, IBAN BE45 7340 1941 7789 using reference ENN-FOINK1-O2010. Tax receipts are available for donations of 40 euros or more. For more information, contact: Griet Van der Perre, communications and fundraising, +32 479 59 91 53

www.fondsinnovatiefkankeronderzoek.be/en