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Research reflections - Beacon of hope for cancer patients

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One of the most exciting fields in cancer research right now is the development of ‘targeted therapies’ – that is, therapies that are designed to attack a unique feature of cancer cells so that treatment kills cancer cells but has no effect on healthy cells. 
 
Now, an explosion of new knowledge and technology is allowing researchers to develop innovative kinds of drugs that selectively target tumour cells.
 
With the Bill and Kathleen Troost Innovation Grant of the Canadian Cancer Society, Dr Gang Zheng and his team at the Ontario Cancer Institute are developing an innovative treatment for spinal metastases, the spread of cancer to the spinal cord. These metastases affect many advanced breast cancer patients and can cause severe pain and paralysis. Their treatment uses light and light-activated drugs to kill cancer cells that have spread to the spinal cord with pinpoint precision.
 
Dr Zheng has invented a “smart drug” or beacon, which is delivered to cancerous and non-cancerous cells, but is only switched on by a specific cancer cell molecule. Light is then used to activate the drug, releasing toxins that destroy cancer cells. Any drug that reaches healthy tissue will not activate and become toxic. Destroying these tumours makes room for injections of special cement that strengthens the spinal cord.
 
“You can give the optimal dose to shrink the cancer without worrying about harming healthy tissue. This has the potential to increase survival and improve the quality of life for these patients,” says Dr Zheng. Early results have shown that this smart drug is effective in selectively killing harmful cells.
 
Dr Zheng’s beacons may also be applied to other cancers, such as brain, and head and neck cancers, where laser-like precision during surgery is essential to preserve vital tissues. “The surgeon can only cut so much. The beacons allow treatment to be more specific and sweep out residual cancer cells, which can reduce the recurrence of cancer,” he says.

You may have noticed our question of the week on the main Community News page: Approximately how much does the Canadian Cancer Society invest in research every year? The correct answer is $45 million!

We look forward to sharing more stories about recent research with members of our community. Are there particular topics you would like to hear about? Do you have questions about research and would you like to learn more? Would you be interested in an interactive webcast about cancer research where you could speak with experts in the field? Please let us know in the comments section below.

Heather




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