New Innovator RCSI
According to global cancer statistics for 2011, about eight million people die worldwide from cancer every year. In many cases, surgery is the first treatment option while radiotherapy and chemotherapy are also widely used. The problem is that cancer cells often are, or can become, treatment-resistant.
Individual biology means people respond very differently to cancer treatments. What works for one doesn’t work for another and, when a treatment fails, both the patient and the healthcare system pay the price.
Every day millions of cells die naturally in the human body due to a process known as apoptosis. Deficiencies in this process play a central role in poor responses to cancer treatments. Researchers at the Royal College of Surgeons have developed a way of applying the technology used in mobile phone networks to analyse networks of cell proteins.
This allows them to pinpoint problems with the proteins involved in cell death. The information gathered can be used by clinicians to provide patients with the treatment most suited to them and most likely to succeed.
This new technology combines a deep understanding of cancer biology with an easy-to-use IT tool that will work on PCs, tablets and iPads. “Our system is superior to statistical approaches based on protein levels or on data from normal pathology and provides an excellent tool for clinical predictions and patient stratification,” says project leader Jochen Prehn, professor of physiology and director of the Centre for Systems Medicine at RCSI. “It also provides a quick and cost-effective solution for treatment decisions.”
The origins of the project go back to 2004 when Science Foundation Ireland funded a collaboration between Siemens and RCSI. This saw a Siemens software engineer work with RCSI researchers to apply networking technology to the cancer treatment problem.
“We looked at how proteins behaved in groups rather than as single entities and that was significant,” Prehn adds. “Using a mathematical model, we can estimate how cells respond depending on how many proteins are there. This is critical to the treatment response.
“Once we know how the network behaves, we can simulate how a patient will respond to treatment and what we need to do in terms of a drug intervention to make a tumour more sensitive to apoptosis. The ultimate goal is to have the technology embedded in the normal clinical routine.”
The development of the new technology (on which two patents have been filed) has received €1.5 million in funding from the Health Research Board and €3 million from the EU. The next step is full commercialisation. RCSI is in discussion with an Irish company interested in licensing the technology which can be applied in both hospital and clinical trial settings.