Health

World’s first ‘Darwinian’ cancer drug plan could be a game changer

The programme based on artificial intelligence that will help forecast cancers and treat them better could be of immense benefit to patients especially given the shortage of oncologists and the growing number of patients

 
By Susan Chacko
Last Updated: Friday 17 May 2019
World’s first ‘Darwinian’ cancer drug plan could be a game changer
Photo: Getty Images Photo: Getty Images

A few days ago a global study projected that cancers are expected to rise from 17 million to 26 million between 2018 and 2040 and a large proportion of those patients are likely to use chemotherapy.

Treatments such as chemotherapy sometimes fail because the deadliest cancer cells adapt and survive, causing the patient to relapse. Thus, the ability of cancer cells to adapt, evolve and become drug resistant is the cause of the vast majority of deaths from the disease and the biggest challenge we face in fighting it.

The good news is that the world’s first ‘Darwinian’ cancer drug programme may soon see the light of day. Developed by the Institute of Cancer Research (ICR), it is specially designed to tackle cancer’s lethal ability to evolve resistance to treatment and is to be launched in a £75 million state-of-the-art global centre of expertise in anti-evolution therapies in London.

Scientists aim to harness evolutionary science within a new Centre for Cancer Drug Discovery to ‘herd’ cancers with anti-evolution drugs and combinations. They believe this new approach can deliver long-term control and effective cures, just as comparable approaches have with HIV.

More cancer patients are living longer and with fewer side effects, but “unfortunately, cancer can become resistant very quickly to new drugs—and this is the greatest challenge we face”, says Olivia Rossanese, the newly appointed head of biology in the Centre for Cancer Drug Discovery. So, this programme focuses on meeting the challenge of cancer evolution and drug resistance through completely new ways of attacking the disease.

The researchers at ICR have shown that it is possible to use artificial intelligence (AI) and advanced maths to forecast how cancers will react when treated with a particular drug. By selecting an initial drug treatment they have found they can force cancer cells to adapt in a way that makes them highly susceptible to a second drug or pushes them into an evolutionary dead end.

The sequential use of cancer drugs would herd cancer cells which would either eradicate the disease or turn incurable disease into a manageable chronic condition.

The ICR is also creating drugs to target cancers’ ability to evolve and become resistant to treatment. These drugs are being designed to stop the action of a molecule called APOBEC to reduce the rate of mutation in cancer cells, slow down evolution and delay resistance.

Christine O'Connell, 46, from south west London, who was diagnosed with secondary breast cancer in February 2018 says that. “Treating cancer as a chronic condition that can be managed on a long-term basis may seem a modest ambition compared to efforts to cure it entirely, but for patients like myself this would be a significant victory.”    

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