R&D gears up aiming for a future without cancer

As India’s cancer burden soars with 7,84,821 deaths reported in 2018, Government of India is boosting research and development to tackle the emperor of all maladies through new vaccine for cancer prevention, nano-materials for early diagnosis, new candidate drugs from herbal and other sources and their targeted delivery as well as partnership in international research efforts.

Cancer antigen SPAG9 discovered at NII and vaccine developed clears 1st phase  clinical trials

A major breakthrough in cancer diagnosis has been the cancer antigen SPAG9 discovered at NII and the vaccine developed cleared the 1st phase clinical trials, an effort headed by Dr. Anil K Suri, at NII, Delhi. Encouraged by the successful results of the immunotherapy route to cancer treatment, The Cancer Institute, at Chennai is now in the midst of the second phase of the clinical trials for the cancer vaccine in collaboration with NII. The Dendritic cell based human clinical trials being conducted at Cancer Institute, are employing therapeutic grade SPAG9, recombinant protein which was discovered by Dr. Anil K Suri, Convener, Cancer Research Program at NII with DBT support. SPAG9 is a cancer antigen that could help reset the immune system and prepares it with information to target cancer cells.

This discovery can connect cancer research and treatment in an integrated manner and will be the first dendritic cell based cancer vaccine employing SPAG9 being used for human cervical cancer patients internationally.

R&D ongoing for nano materials for targeted drug delivery for curing cancer

For all the available cancer therapy either oral or intravenous, the drug dose gets distributed in whole body and as a result, higher doses are required for effective treatment, leading to extra financial burden. Normal cells are also indirectly affected. Researchers are trying to develop new materials that can carry the drugs to the proliferating cancer cells and deliver them there by taking advantage of the increased proliferation capacity of cancer cells. This approach obviates potential harm to the non-cancerous tissue. In a collaborative research between Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology (CCMB) and Indian Institute of Chemical Technology (IICT), scientists have synthesized iron oxide nanoparticles and attached a drug called photo-sensitiser and a peptide to provide targeted photodynamic therapy. The nano particles piggy backs on the proliferating cancer cells and delivers the drugs to the target. On exposure to light, the photo-sensitiser releases free radicals that kill the cancer cells, with less harm to non-cancerous cells.

Withaferin, a chemical derived from Ashwagandha is a new candidate drug for ALT cancer treatment

Withaferin-A (Wi-A), a chemical derived from Ashwagandha (Withania somnifera) stops cancer cell growth in multiple ways a new study has revealed. A study carried out by Department of Biotechnology (DBT, India) National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science & Technology AIST, Japan), International Laboratory for Advanced Biomedicine (DAILAB) identified Wi-A as a new candidate drug for cancers. Wi-A stands out as a chemical because it can destroy a certain type of cancer cells called ALT tumours which cannot be tackled by most cancer drugs available in the market. The lifespan of normal cells in the body are regulated by shortening of telomeres (specialized ends of eukaryotic chromosomes that shorten with each round of division). In contrast, cancer cells maintain their telomere length. It is achieved by activation of telomere extending enzyme, called telomerase, or by a mechanism called Alternative Lengthening of Telomeres (ALT). ALT cells have very long telomeres and express aggressive characteristics of cancer. Whereas anti-telomerase drugs are considered useful for therapy, the ALT tumors are unresponsive to such drugs causing failure in cancer treatment. Wi-A causes telomere dysfunction and improves DNA damage leading to inhibition of growth of cancer cells.  

TRIM16, a key protein for therapeutic interventions for neurodegenerative diseases and cancer.

A team led by Dr. Santosh Chuahan at the Institute of Life Sciences (ILS), Bhubaneswar identified that TRIM16 governs the cell stress machineries to safely dispose the protein aggregates which otherwise could be cytotoxic. The study showed that the cancer cells can highjack the TRIM16 governed cell stress machinery helping them to survive under harsh cellular stress conditions including oxidative stress. They found that removing this protein in cancer cells make them vulnerable and incapable of tolerating the oxidative stress leading to their death. Hence, the pharmacological down-regulation of TRIM16 could have direct implication in cancer therapy.

Molecular Diagnostic Laboratory established at the Mizoram State Cancer Institute (MSCI), Aizawl

Recognizing the widespread tobacco addiction in Mizoram & to unravel genetic factors underlying susceptibility to develop cancer, collaborative studies between the Mizoram University, Aizawl & NIBMG, Kalyani have been initiated. Studies have revealed a direct correlation in mitochondrial gene alterations of COI and D-loop for cancer risk in Mizoram. Cigarette smoking and other tobacco products, smoked meat and fermented food products are other associated factors. Nuclear gene alterations (GSTM1 and/or GSTT1 homozygous gene deletions, E-cadherin and TP53 genes) are also involved in carcinogenesis. Preliminary observations about infectious agents like Helicobacter pylori and Epstein Barr virus are being implicated in adenocarcinoma of the stomach. In recognition of the fact that accurate and precise diagnosis is the cornerstone of any successful cancer treatment, DBT has established a “Molecular Diagnostic Laboratory” at the Mizoram State Cancer Institute (MSCI), Aizawl (Mizoram),which is contributing to not only enhancing the quality of comprehensive cancer care but also do quality research in understanding the factors underlying high incidence of cancer in the State.

India participates and contributes to International Cancer Consortium

India is part of International Cancer Genome Consortium (ICGC) with an aim to obtain  comprehensive description of genomic, transcriptomic and epigenomic changes in 50 different tumor types and  subtypes (500 tumors per tumor  type )which are of clinical and societal importance across the globe. More than 25,000 cancer genomes are there to be explored. An International Consortium is a global coordinated effort to discover the genetic changes that drive cancer and identify novel affordable treatment for cancer. These multinational effort will reduce research duplication, ensuring standardization and uniform methodology and quality measures.  Such collaboration for human cause will accelerate the dissemination of genomic and analytical methods. Next generation sequencing, high speed instruments and reduced costs per genome are the driving force for decoding various cancer genome worldwide. ICGC team, India have been successfully the drivers in oral cancer research.  Oral cancer accounts for 66% cases in developing countries of which 33% tobacco related cancers are in India. Alterations in several genes as mutations & biological pathways specific to driving the Indian variety of oral cancer-the gingivo-buccal oral cancer have been reported.

India-UK Cancer Research Initiative for Affordable Approaches to Cancer

The India-UK Cancer Research Initiative provides a catalysing platform for scientists and researchers in the UK and India to co-create solutions for affordable cancer care that improve cancer outcomes around the globe. The research outcomes of this initiative will aid cancer prevention, control and management in the long term. The initiative will provide funding to develop new research alliances and undertake impactful research through a 5-year bilateral research initiative by the Department of Biotechnology, Ministry of Science & Technology, India and Cancer Research UK (CRUK) in November, 2018. The research phases of the Initiative will be overseen by a board of advisors comprising five cancer experts each from India and UK.