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|On Target: Lavasanifar (left) and fellow researcher Samar Hamdy are developing complex nanoparticles that range from 100 to 500 nanometres in size. Photo by Pete Yee|
A team of researchers at the University of Alberta are using tiny technology for a big purpose — the improvement of cancer treatment.
By Jonathan Taves, Deputy News Editor
The group, led by Afsaneh Lavasanifar, an associate professor in the Faculty of Pharmacy, is working on a nanoparticle that boost the human body's immune system in its fight against tumours.
"Usually, the immune system of the body should recognize them and basically destroy the cancer cells. But in some cases, because of separate mutations that happen in cancer cells, they make themselves resistant to the effect of the immune cells," Lavasanifar explained.
The developers have created a nanoparticle that is bound with antigens, which are biological molecules that are taken in by cells that help immunity.
"We also load other materials that are called adjuvants and they are supposed to boost the immune response. Then together they are being captured, because their size is optimum for uptake by immune cells," Lavasanifar said. "One of the most important of these cells are dendritic cells. Dendritic cells can engulf antigens, and then they basically order other cells of the immune system what to do."
Lavasanifar added that this treatment can also boost the effectiveness of chemotherapy.
"Another goal we have in my research group is to target chemotherapy drugs towards the cancer cells. The long-term objective of our research group is to combine the two, chemo and immunotherapy, to get better response from both of them. We believe that combing the two approaches will lead to the eradication of the cancer [cells] and the removal of the tumour," she said.
This targeted approach can have many benefits.
"These materials are supposed to lower the dose of chemotherapy that is received by the patients. Overall, they may be cost effective because you need a smaller dose of the drug. And then you don't need to deal with the side effects of the drugs," Lavasanifar said, citing the toll standard chemotherapy procedures can have on the body.
She explained how changing the types of antigens can allow different types of cancer to be treated. One of the group's research focuses hits especially close to home, as the professor of pharmacy who started work on this project, John Samuel, succumbed to cancer at the age of 53 in 2007.
"We are trying to target the cancers that are hard to treat right now. One of those types of cancers is pancreatic cancer, for example. Another one is head and neck cancer — unfortunately, that is the type of cancer that Dr. Samuel actually passed away from," Lavasanifar noted. "He asked me to take over his staff and research program."
Aiming at different types of cells requires modification of the size and surface properties of the nanoparticles.
"If we want to target a tumour, than we have to look at a different size. We have to go below 100 nanometres," Lavasanifar explained. "By doing that, we make these nanoparticles not be recognized by the immune cells so they are not being taken up very rapidly. Then they have a chance to accumulate in the tumour."
However, Lavasanifar noted that clinical trials of the technology haven't been as promising as hoped, and obstacles remain ahead.
"People think that one of the challenges is the immune tolerance that the body develops during cancer's progression. So one of the challenges is to break the tolerance of the body against this cancer vaccine. That is one area we're doing research on," she said.
Another obstacle is the cost of such intricate treatment, but Lavasanifar is optimistic that will decrease.
"As we move along, maybe we'll find better ways to optimize these products," she said. "It's quite costly compared to what is already there, but if they are more effective for a disease like cancer, that's what we have to do."
About University of Alberta
The University of Alberta’s vision since its inception more than 100 years ago has been to be one of the world’s great universities for the public good. In the words of our first president, Henry Marshall Tory, the U of A is an institution directed toward the “uplifting of the whole people” in Alberta, across Canada, and around the world. This vision endures in the university’s current vision document, Dare to Discover, and our academic plan, Dare to Deliver.
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