Scientists developing novel strategies to track down and target tumor variants
The current situation of scientists engaged in cancer research resembles that of the mythological Hercules: every attempt to behead Hydra results in the emergence of yet another of her hideous heads. Researchers are adapting their strategies to deal with an enemy more and more complex and dynamic that changes constantly its cellular composition, and becoming more resistant to treatment. But the time is not far when the immediate diagnosis of cancer, yet so small as to be invisible to a CAT scan, can lead to more personalized care designed for each individual patient.
The results and prospects of this pioneering research will be presented and discussed at the international conference, Resolving Cancer Heterogeneity: A Way to Personalized Medicine, sponsored by the Menarini International Foundation and Silicon Biosystems, held at the Palazzo della Gran Guardia in Verona, Italy, from June 30 to July 2.
“Heterogeneity is the key word to understand where our research is moving toward,” explains Aldo Scarpa, M.D., Ph.D., president of the conference, Director of the Research Center for Applied on ARC-Net Cancer of the University of Verona and the Molecular Diagnostic Unit of Cancer. “We know now that cancer is not one disease, but a disease comprised of many different types of tumor families, each of which is treated with different medications.
“Recently, however, we realized that there are more differences not only in these sub-groups, but also from patient to patient, even at different stages of the disease in the same person, and that small groups of cancer cells with different features can coexist within the majority. It is this heterogeneity of cancer that helps us understand how you can effectively fight the disease with diagnostic tools increasingly more accurate and faster, and with more and more selective drugs targeted to hit the different sub-groups of cells. Here in Verona we will encounter researchers from around the world who are taking this approach,” added Dr. Scarpa.
The Problem of Tumor Heterogeneity
What are these subgroups of tumor cells? Not more than 15 years ago it was discovered that each type of cancer is actually a family of similar but different diseases, each of which is characterized by defects of different genes. This resulted in the development of molecular-targeted drugs, each directed against the effects of a certain gene mutation. Recent research has shown that the gene mutations are also different from one patient to another, they can coexist in more than one form, and these changes can newly appear in the same tumor – even during therapy – over weeks and months. Now researchers around the world are working hard to clarify these mechanisms, and to find diagnostic tools and drugs to destroy them.
An innovative technology called DEPArray, developed by Menarini Silicon Biosystems, addresses the problem of tumor heterogeneity by enabling researchers to isolate pure tumor cells from minute tissue specimens containing very few tumor cells. Moreover, the technology enables the isolation of single circulating tumor cells that are present in minimal concentrations in blood and other body fluids. Specimens of a few hundred cells, which in many cases are the only ones available, can subsequently be analyzed to guide treatment. Molecular analysis of the isolated cells allows identification of key drivers of mutations, and can guide clinicians to decide on the most effective molecular-targeted drug.
New Tumor Marker Discovered
Dario Marchetti, Ph.D., Director of the Biomarker Research Program of the Methodist Research Institute inHouston (Texas), will present his recent discoveries at the symposium. “In our laboratory we have identified a biomarker on circulating tumor cells, that can reveal early brain metastases arising from breast cancer. This happens in about 20 percent of cases of breast cancer and similar percentages in other types of cancer, such as melanoma and the lung. We are dissecting the molecular heterogeneity of subsets of circulating tumor cells responsible for metastasis.”
Important discoveries from other researchers of various nationalities will be presented in Verona addressing the heterogeneity of many other types of tumors such as lung, colorectal, liver, kidney, pancreatic, and prostate. Although these results are not ready for clinical practice, they will show promising benefits soon.
The most ambitious goal of this leading-edge research is to understand the origin of cancer, and what is behind the heterogeneity of genetic mutations. “At the origin of a tumor are stem cells that differentiate into different populations of cancer cells, each with a genetic set of mutations,” said Dr. Scarpa. “This is the basis of cancer heterogeneity we are studying. What we are testing is how to isolate these tumor stem cells, and understand the mechanisms in order to target the roots of the various cancer cell populations.”
“In Verona we’ll talk about the future, but in very concrete terms in order to create a new paradigm and a more comprehensive understanding of cancer with current scientific knowledge. The importance and value of this conference is in bringing together the true vanguard of research on major diseases, and in disseminating the knowledge of this work,” added Alessandro Casini, Ph.D., president of the Menarini International Foundation.
“The heterogeneity of cancer, and the prospects that expand our knowledge of this, is not yet very clear. I hope this meeting will help to spread this knowledge in keeping with the spirit of the events organized by the Foundation in the various areas of biomedical research.”
Menarini Silicon Biosystems, based in San Diego, Calif., and Bologna, Italy, is a wholly owned subsidiary of the Menarini Group, a multinational pharmaceutical, biotechnology and diagnostics company headquartered inFlorence, Italy, with a heritage of over 130 years and over 16,000 employees in more than 100 countries- PRNewswire