Cancer is probably one of the most lethal illnesses that plague the world for a very long time, but researchers from Institute of Cancer Research (ICR) in the United Kingdom has a creative solution that could put an end to the terrors brought by this deadly disease – to stop the evolution of cancer cells.
In a continuous effort to end the cancer phenomenon, the Institute of Cancer Research (ICR) is setting up a $78 million Centre for Cancer Drug Discovery that will convene the best minds in cancer research from different disciplines to focus on creating anti-evolution treatments.
According to Paul Workman, head of the ICR in the UK, all treatments for cancer should be designed to prevent tumors from evolving resistance, and that’s exactly what the new Centre for Cancer Drug Discovery aims to do.
“We are hugely excited about it,” Workman told a press briefing at the Science Media Centre. “The biggest challenge in cancer is drug resistance.”
Cancer is a group of diseases involving abnormal cell growth with the potential to invade or spread to other parts of the body. It develops when genetic mutations destroy the mechanism in cells that generally limits growth. And as tumors in the body grow, these cells continue to evolve and mutate to become more diverse, building resistance against conventional treatment processes.
When a person living with cancer is first treated with a specific drug, the body will respond to the treatment pretty effectively at first. However, it does not kill all the cancers cell. Among those who survive the first phase of treatments, some of the stronger cells will mutate to develop resistance against the treatment process and the drug administered. They will therefore survive, and keep growing.
This is natural selection. It is the process that drives other species – animals, plants, bacteria, and viruses – to evolve.
“Cancers evolve very rapidly over a short space of time to become resistant, leading to the vast majority of cancer deaths,” says Workman.
And while there is already a technology – like the single-cell genome sequencing – that allows researchers to study the process of cancer cell evolution, a little understanding is all that they have as of today.
“We need a culture shift in how we develop drugs,” says Olivia Rossanese, who will be head of biology in the new center.
Scientists have initially suggested different methods on how they will put an end to cancer cell evolution. One strategy they propose is what is called “triple therapy.”
It is an approach which combines different drugs with different killing mechanisms. The researchers argue that while some cancer cells may be able to resist one or two medications, it is rare for any cells to have mutations that will allow them to survive all three at once.
Workman noted that triple drug therapy had been the key to stop the evolution of HIV. The virus can evolve to survive and resist one drug but very seldom three.
For this treatment process to work, all three drugs should be administered all at once because if they are introduced to the body separately, cancer cells can develop resistance mutation against all of them one by one. The problem, however, is that these drugs are tested for safety individually, and may be more dangerous if combined.
“The existing way of getting drugs approved does not lend itself to doing this,” says Workman.
Scientists are also exploring the possibility of limiting the cancer cells’ ability to evolve by stopping them from mutating. According to the researchers, the mutation in cancer cells is often induced by an enzyme called APOBEC, which functions to generate the diversity of our immune system needs to respond to new diseases. These enzymes are hijacked by cancer cells and use them in their evolution process.
Another approach being studied in the new Centre is what is called “evolutionary herding.” In this approach, instead of stopping the evolutionary process altogether, researchers want the cancer cells to evolve in a certain way – a way in which the cells are more vulnerable to treatments.
The researchers hope that with a new system that is dedicated to the anti-evolution approach help bring about new and helpful development in cancer research.
“We need to stop playing catch-up,” says Rossanese.