Nuclear medicine could treat cancer, Canadian researchers step up fight


A scientist pipetting the components of a radiopharmaceutical.

A UBC-led team has received more than $23 million in federal funding to develop precision radiopharmaceuticals that promise to transform cancer care in Canada and beyond.

Radiation has been the main means of cancer treatment for decades, with approximately 50% of cancer patients receiving radiation therapy at some point along the way.

Although conventional radiotherapy is effective, it relies on powerful energy beams delivered from outside the body. Although these beams can kill cancer cells, their use is limited to selected sites, making them less suitable for difficult-to-treat metastatic cancers that have spread to multiple sites.

A UBC-led team of Canadian researchers has now received $23.7 million in federal funding to develop a new generation of radiation therapy known as radiopharmaceutical therapy that delivers highly targeted radiation from within the body.

Dr. François Bénard

Dr. François Bénard

This treatment works like a homing device, using specially designed molecules to seek out and deliver radioactive isotopes directly to cancer cells wherever they are in the body. These radioactive warheads kill cancer with high precision while causing minimal harm to surrounding healthy tissue and causing minimal side effects to the patient.

“This is the holy grail of cancer therapy. These disease-targeting molecules circulate throughout the body and bind tightly to cancer cells to eliminate them by highly localized bursts of energy.” said principal investigator Dr. François Bénard, professor of radiology and associate dean of the UBC School of Medicine. Senior Executive Director of the BC Cancer Institute, a UBC affiliate of the State Department of Health Services.

Radioactive isotopes emit different types of particles, from relatively light beta particles (electrons) to heavier alpha particles (two neutrons and two protons). The particle type affects how the isotope is used, including in cancer diagnosis and therapy.

“This is the holy grail of cancer therapy. These disease-targeting molecules circulate throughout the body, eliminating cancer cells in highly localized energy bursts.”
Dr. François Bénard

“This technique is very adaptable to different types of cancer and cancers that have metastasized to multiple locations,” added Dr. Benard. “International studies, particularly those using potent alpha emitters, have shown surprising responses in patients with end-stage metastatic disease who have exhausted all other treatment options.”

Made in Canada medicines

The multidisciplinary research team includes researchers from UBC, BC Cancer, TRIUMF, Simon Fraser University, Laval University, Sherbrooke University, Western University, University of Toronto, University of Alberta and Lawson Health Research Institute.

Dr. Paul Schaefer

Dr. Paul Schaefer

One of the key challenges they hope to overcome is the global shortage of radioisotopes. The global supply of one of the promising elements, actinium-225, equivalent to just a few grains of sand, is enough to treat up to 2,000 patients annually.

In partnership with TRIUMF, Canada’s particle accelerator center, the team will use a cyclotron to produce clinical-grade isotopes domestically in sufficient quantities to supply Canada and the world. The team’s work will utilize TRIUMF’s existing 520 MeV cyclotron and the new infrastructure being established within the TRIUMF-based Advanced Medical Isotope Laboratory.

“Alpha-emitting isotopes such as actinium 225 have great potential to transform cancer treatments and significantly improve patient well-being,” said Dr. Paul Schaefer, TRIUMF Life Science Director. I’m here. “At TRIUMF, we have the unique advantages of both a world-leading isotope production facility and an established network of collaborators within the radiopharmaceutical research and innovation ecosystem. We are pleased to utilize our space and capabilities to provide large quantities of rare isotopes such as actinium-225 to assist in the important research that is taking place.”

To meet the pressing demand for this popular radioisotope, production will initially focus on actinium-225. The team will now aim to establish a supply chain of clinically promising isotope libraries that can be used for therapeutic and diagnostic purposes.

Dr. Katerina Ramogida

Dr. Katerina Ramogida

The radioisotope binds to target molecules that recognize and bind proteins on the surface of cancer cells. Another key component, known as a bifunctional chelating ligand, attaches the radioisotope to the target molecule and ensures safe transport within the body.

In this project, we are designing biomolecules that target different types of cancer, including prostate cancer, pancreatic cancer, breast cancer, and blood cancer.

“Radiopharmaceutical design is modular in nature, which gives us the flexibility to customize each drug for specific disease targets. We can design bifunctional chelating ligands that are optimized for the body and then conjugate them to disease-targeting molecules of choice,” said Dr. Katerina Ramogida, co-Principal Investigator and Assistant Professor of Chemistry. Jointly with TRIUMF at Simon Fraser University. “Using this adaptive approach, we have the potential to develop different drugs tailored to different types of cancer.”

bring medicine to the clinic

By integrating Canadian expertise in oncology, radiology, nuclear physics, nuclear engineering, chemistry, biology, clinical medicine, and health economics, this project will facilitate the research, development, and clinical application of new radiopharmaceutical therapeutics. Establish a complete pipeline for

Researchers in Dr. François Bénard's lab use experimental equipment to synthesize cancer-targeting peptides, the core component of radiopharmaceuticals.

TRIUMF researchers use a radiochemical processing hot cell with a glovebox to process radioisotopes used in nuclear medicine.

The team hopes to bring multiple drug candidates into future clinical trials in the next few years and will successfully coordinate regulatory compliance and economics of new drug introduction in the clinic to ensure widespread adoption in Canada. We want to accelerate.

“We will establish Canada as a world leader in nuclear medicine and ensure that Canadians and patients around the world benefit,” said Dr Bennard. “By developing these medicines in Canada and introducing them into local clinical trials, we will have faster access to innovative cancer treatments for Canadians.”

Cancer remains the leading cause of death in Canada, with nearly one in two Canadians expected to be diagnosed with cancer during their lifetime. One in four Canadians will die from the disease.

“Nuclear medicine has the potential to transform cancer care,” said Dr. Bennard. “Radiopharmaceuticals have the potential to significantly improve quality of life and life expectancy for cancer patients, especially those with metastatic cancer, many of whom are currently untreatable.”





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