Tiny barcodes offer ‘huge advance’ in personalized cancer therapy

A comparison between the various anticancer drugs also found differences in the effectiveness of the various drugs.

November 11, 2016 05:49
3 minute read.
Nurse examines patiest (illustrative)

Nurse examines patiest (illustrative). (photo credit: INGIMAGE)

Personalized cancer therapy just got a boost from a new diagnostic development at the Technion- Israel Institute of Technology in Haifa.

The process involves the use of tiny quantities of different barcoded drugs which are checked a inside patient’s tumor to determine effectiveness. The process, just published in Nature Communications, is similar to the process of allergy testing.

Using synthetic DNA sequences as a form of extremely tiny barcodes, Prof. Avi Schroeder, of the university’s Chemical Engineering Faculty and Integrated Cancer Center, and his colleagues developed a way to determine the suitability of any specific anticancer drug to any individual patient – before treatment even begins.

“The medical world is now moving toward personalized medicine, but treatments tailored only according to the patient’s genetic characteristics don’t always grant an accurate prediction of which medicine will be best for each patient,” said Schroeder. “We, however, have developed a technology that complements this field.”

Together with doctoral student, Zvi Yaari, and other researchers, Schroeder created what amounts to a safe, miniature lab inside each patient’s body that examines the effectiveness of a particular drug in that patient.

Researchers packed minuscule quantities of anticancer drugs inside of dedicated nanoparticles which they had developed.

The unique design of the anticancer, drug-loaded, nanoscale packages gives those packages the ability to flow in the bloodstream to the tumor, where they are “swallowed” by the cancer cells. Synthetic DNA sequences attached in advance to the drugs serve as biological “barcode readers” of each drug’s activity in those cells.

After 48 hours a biopsy is taken from the tumor. The barcode analysis then provides accurate information about the cells that were (or were not) destroyed by each drug. In essence, the system monitors the effect of each drug on the patient’s tumor cells. The researchers are currently working with drugs registered as anticancer drugs, but in principle, they can test a battery of any type of drugs for each patient to find which is the most effective drug to treat their disease.

“It’s a bit like testing for allergies, where simple tests provide us with a specific person’s allergy profile. Here we developed a simple test that provides us with a profile of the patient’s response to the designated drug,” Schroeder explained.

“This method makes it possible to test the effectiveness of several drugs concurrently in the patient’s tumor, in minute doses not felt by the patient, and which do not pose any danger to him or her. Based on the test results, the most effective drug for the specific patient is selected.”

The study, based on experiments in mice, focused on the effect of various drugs on “triple- negative-type” breast cancer – a particularly challenging cancer that does not respond well to standard treatment and presents difficulties to doctors trying to match a drug to a patient. To make sure the experiment examines the effect of the drug, and not an effect of the nanoscale package, “placebo packages” without drugs were also inserted in tumors.

The result: the anticancer drugs were found at the end of the process mainly in dead cancer cells. In other words, they killed them, while the placebo packages were found mainly in live tumor cells, that is, they had not killed the cells.

A comparison between the various anticancer drugs also found differences in the effectiveness of the various drugs.

“This technology provides a new window into fundamental insights about the mechanisms of cancer and resistance to various drugs,” concluded Schroeder.

“But my thoughts are also practical – how our research could help people. Therefore, I am thrilled by the current success. It’s true that it’ll take a lot more work to turn our development into a product that’s available to the public, but I believe that we’ll see it at the clinic within a few years.”

The study is being funded by a prestigious H2020-ERC grant from the European Union, the Israel Science Foundation and the Israel Cancer Association.

The new technology has been patented and discussions are under way about its commercialization.

ICA director-general Miri Ziv commented, “We are proud to have supported such an important and promising research that could provide a customized solution for patients and lead to more efficient, precise and accurate treatment.”

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