Researchers Whose Work May Lead to Cancer Treatment Breakthroughs

While it is not possible in one post to list all the hard-working clinical researchers and medical professionals waging the good battle against cancer, here is a roundup of 10 such individuals.
Below, we take a look at the work of these researchers from around the world and wish them good luck and success in their discoveries.

Sidi Chen, Yale

Sidi Chen, Ph.D., is assistant professor of genetics at Yale’s Systems Biology Institute. Using a new type of medical technology, Chen has identified gene combinations linked to glioblastoma, a deadly brain cancer with a median survival rate of 1 to 1.5 years.

By creating an updated application of CRISPR gene editing and screening technology, Chen has been able to find primary drivers of glioblastoma in living mice. The researchers working with Chen then assessed mutations in 1500 genetic combinations and discovered potential causes for cancer, as well as mutations that make tumors resistant to chemotherapy.

“We can also use this information to determine which existing drugs are most likely to have therapeutic value for individual patients, a step towards personalized cancer therapy,” Chen says.

Marianne Cronjé, University of Johannesburg

Professor Marianne Cronjé, Ph.D., is the head of the Department of Biochemistry at the University of Johannesburg, South Africa.

Cronjé’s research has discovered new selective silver-based anti-cancer drugs that could help treat cancer with levels of toxicity lower than chemotherapy drugs. Laboratory tests have proved successful on rats and human cancer cells.

“What we have observed in the lab setting and in-vitro, these compounds do not affect normal or non-malignant cells, even close to the same extent than it does the cancer cells,” Cronjé says.

“What we have tested certainly seems to indicate that this compound can target quite a few different types of cancer. And the last set of data that we published actually shows that these compounds actually influence the mitochondria of the cell which is particularly important for us because the mitochondria, these so called ‘powerhouses’ of the cell, are the ones that are involved in this specific mode of apoptosis.”

Li Ding, Washington University

Dr. Li Ding is associate professor of medicine and director of computational biology in oncology at Washington University.

Ding, in collaboration with international colleagues, have deciphered the genetic code of tumors, which will help with developing more effective drugs in cancer treatment.

The research has revealed that tumors in different parts of the body share “molecular similarities,” which differs from previous thinking of cancers in terms of their place of origin in the body, such as brain or bowels.

Called the Cancer Genome Atlas, the project has genetically mapped 33 different types of cancer tumors from more than 11,000 patients. Tumors stem from mutations in 300 different genes. Analysis at this level can determine which cells are more vulnerable to certain types of treatment.

“Studying their molecular features, we now know such cancers are closely related,” Li says. “Cancers originating in, for example, cells that line various organs are similarly closely related, regardless of their location.

“Just knowing what the cancer genes are, that’s important because now we can develop a cancer panel for screening.”

Thomas Gajewski, University of Chicago

Thomas Gajewski, MD, Ph.D., is researching how the bacteria in patients’ guts can determine whether they will respond to a certain immunotherapy known as checkpoint inhibition.

This therapy can shrink advanced tumors and even get them to disappear, but not many patients react this way. Gajewski’s work aims to discover why.

Research shows people with lots of good bacteria are more likely than those with bad gut bacteria to respond to checkpoint inhibition. Additionally, different bacteria affect the immune system in different ways; good bacteria actually boost the immune system.

Gajewski has analyzed 10 species of bacteria that appear in significantly different ratios among patients, with eight species more abundant in those responsive to treatment and two more abundant in those who didn’t. Patients’ ratios of good bacteria to bad bacteria were scored to be used as a biomarker for predicting whether patients might benefit from treatment.

The research also showed that mice implanted with human melanoma tumors and no gut bacteria could have good or bad bacteria transplanted in them. The good bacteria and checkpoint inhibitor treatment caused tumors to shrink.

Oral doses in human clinical trials are expected to start soon.

Dr. Xiaoming ‘Shawn’ He, University of Maryland

Professor Xiaoming “Shawn” He is from the University of Maryland Fischell Department of Bioengineering. He, along with researchers from five other academic institutions, are investigating how nanoparticles and near-infrared laser treatment can be used to make multidrug-resistant cancer cells temporarily non-resistant.

This “therapeutic window” means the chemotherapy treatment can attack the hitherto resistant cells left behind after surgery or earlier treatment.

“By administering chemotherapy within this ‘therapeutic window,’ oncologists could apply a lower dose of chemotherapy drugs to patients, with the potential for an improved treatment outcome — all while minimizing drug toxicity to healthy organs,” He says.

Cancer cells develop resistance to drugs, in part, from an overexpression of efflux pumps — proteins that protect cells by eliminating unwanted toxic substances before they reach their targets. The problem is these proteins also get rid of chemotherapy drugs.

By cutting off the supply of chemical energy (adenosine triphosphate) to efflux pumps, He can open the window for treatment.

Howard Kaufman, Rutgers University

Howard Kaufman, MD of the Rutgers Cancer Institute of New Jersey is experimenting with an old idea and updated science: using viruses to kill cancer cells.

These oncolytic viruses have been modified in laboratories to reproduce in cancer cells so as to not harm healthy cells in patients.

A modified oncolytic virus — known as talimogene laherparepvec (Imlygic®), or T-VEC — has been used to treat melanoma but is the only such virus with FDA approval to be used in clinical trials.

These viruses are believed to initiate the immune system response against cancer by infecting the cancer cell and replicating itself until the tumor bursts. Antigens are released from the dying cell, which allows the immune system to recognize the invasion.

“The oncolytic virus kills tumor cells and causes the release of danger signals, which help to generate an immune response,” Kaufman says.

Kaufman has been involved in early-phase clinical trials in which oncolytic virus therapy and immunotherapy are combined to treat cancer. Patients with melanoma that received T-VEC and checkpoint inhibitor immunotherapy showed better response rates than those that received immunotherapy only.

Maria Kavallaris, Children’s Cancer Institute (Sydney)

Professor Maria Kavallaris, Ph.D., is head of the tumor biology and targeting research department at the Children’s Cancer Institute in Australia and director of the Australian Centre for Nanomedicine.

Kavallaris’ work aims to develop less toxic cancer treatments through nanotechnology and deliver chemotherapy directly to tumor cells.

“Nanotechnology allows us to package either drugs or gene delivery targets within the nanoparticles, to try and destroy the tumor cells while trying not to damage the normal cells,” she says.

The research undertaken by Kavallaris and the institute has the potential of making drugs safer and reducing side effects. These drugs are likely to be used in a clinical setting in the coming years.

Dr. Sergio Quezada, University College London

Dr. Sergio Quezada is from the University College London’s Cancer Institute and has been working on developing cancer treatment specialized for each patient’s requirements.

A single patient’s cancer cells show common mutations, which can be isolated and attacked by immune cells. Quezada likens it to a tree with cancer cells starting with the same trunk but soon branching off. Immune cells can “chop the tree at the trunk rather than just pruning the branches,” Quezada says.

“The tumor is an evolving mass. Mutations change here and there. Mutations in one area of the tumor are usually different from mutations in other parts of the tumors,” he adds.

Quezada’s discovery could lead to researchers:

  • Customizing vaccines targeting core mutations
  • Identifying immune cells to fight core mutations

Dr. Nicola Valeri, The Institute of Cancer Research (London)

Dr. Nicola Valeri is the team leader in Gastrointestinal Cancer Biology and Genomics at The Institute of Cancer Research in London.

Valeri has discovered that cells from patients can be used to grow replica tumors. This means the replicas can be tested with drugs until the most likely cure is found. The benefits of this approach include a shift away from a trial-and-error approach to treatment.

Research conducted on 71 patients with advanced bowel, gastro-oesophageal or bile duct cancers showed tests done on replica tumors were 100 percent accurate in identifying drugs that did not work and were 90 percent accurate determining which would reduce tumor size.

“Once a cancer has spread round the body and stopped responding to standard treatments, we face a race against time to find patients a drug that might slow the cancer’s progression and extend their lives,” Valeri says.

“We found that recreating patients’ tumors in the laboratory using this new technique gave us an extremely promising way to predict whether a drug would work for a patient. We were able to look in incredible detail at how tumors responded to drugs — including patterns of gene activity and mutation, and even how the cancer would evolve in response to treatment.”

David Ziegler, Australian Cancer Research Foundation

Associate professor Dr. David Ziegler is a clinical scientist at the Drug Discovery Centre at the Australian Cancer Research Foundation and has played a part in developing award-winning Cancer Therapeutics CRC (CTx).

Ziegler is responsible for researching the development of new treatments for Diffuse Intrinsic Pontine Glioma (DIPG), “which remains completely incurable,” Ziegler writes at The Conversation. Its sensitive location in the brainstem means the tumour cannot be removed surgically. Even biopsies are usually not performed.”

One drug identified so far through his research is fenretinide, which “is among the few safest, most effective of 3500 drugs tested against DIPG neurospheres cultured in our labs,” he pointed out in 2017.

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