Revolutionary cancer treatment

A new form of cancer therapy nine years in the making has potential to be the ‘miracle cure’ the world has been waiting for, according to Dr David Ackerley.

Dr David Ackerley

Work led by David, director of Victoria’s Biotechnology programme and an associate professor in the School of Biological Sciences, has underpinned the development of a new form of chemotherapy that exclusively affects cancer cells. With this more targeted method, cancer patients should experience fewer side effects.

To achieve their goal, David and his team at Victoria and Auckland Universities have found a way to engineer genes that can transform a relatively safe, non-toxic compound into a drug that is highly toxic to cancer cells.

These genes can be delivered to cancer cells, using viruses or bacteria that are able to replicate in tumours. The patients are then treated with the compound David’s team has developed. Because the treatment is non-toxic to healthy cells, the compound can be administered to patients at much higher doses than regular chemotherapy drugs.

Alongside researchers in the Netherlands and the United Kingdom, the team is moving towards clinical trials which, David says, should occur within the next two years. “We know our therapy works at a laboratory level, but we’re going to have to tick a lot of boxes to show that it will be safe for patients and more effective than current chemotherapy treatments.”

David says the field of cancer gene therapy has previously suffered because there’s been no way to non-invasively confirm that a virus is delivered only to the tumour.

“What’s unique about our study is that the genes we work with can also trigger radioactive molecules, called positron emission tomography [PET] imaging probes. This may allow a clinician to put a patient in a full body PET scanner to safely detect exactly where in the body the gene has been delivered.”

The common theme of David’s different research areas is mimicking natural evolutionary processes to improve enzyme activities. One of his PhD students, Alistair Brown, who is part of the University’s 2014 Know Your Mind recruitment campaign, is using this process for the discovery of new antibiotics and to solve other health problems.