A research team at Deakin University has made a discovery that could have huge implications on the treatment and survival rates of cancer victims. The researchers, along with scientists in India and Australia have created the world’s first RNA aptamer, a chemical antibody that targets cancer stem cell marker epithelial cell adhesion molecule (EpCAM). This marker is overexpressed in cancer cells, thus allowing the RNA aptamer to bind directly to the cell before being internalized. The implications of this are that the aptamer has the potential ability to deliver drugs directly to the cancer stem cells and can also be used to develop a more effective cancer imaging system for early detection of the disease.
“Despite technological and medical advances, the survival rates for many cancers remain poor, due partly to the inability to detect cancer early and then provide targeted treatment,” said Professor Wei Duan, the Director of the Deakin Medical School’s Nanomedicine Program. “Current cancer treatments destroy the cells that form the bulk of the tumour, but are largely ineffective against the root of the cancer, the cancer stem cells. This suggests that in order to provide a cure for cancer we must accurately detect and eliminate the cancer stem cells.”
The aptamer is the first part of the ‘medical smart bomb’ the researchers have been developing. “What we have created is the ‘guided missile’ part of the ‘smart bomb’,” Professor Duan explained. “The aptamer acts like a guided missile, targeting the tumour and binding to the root of the cancer. “The aim now is to combine the aptamer with the ‘bomb’ (a microscopic fat particle) that can carry anti-cancer drugs or diagnostic imaging agents directly to the cancer stem cells, creating the ultimate medical smart bomb.”
“The cancer stem cell-targeting missile and the smart bomb could revolutionise the way cancer is diagnosed,” he explained. “The minute size of the aptamer means it could locate cancer cells in their very early stages. Attaching radioactive compounds to the aptamer could lead to the development of sensitive diagnostic scans for earlier detection, more accurate pinpointing of the location of cancer, better prediction of the chance of cure and improved monitoring of the response to treatment. More accurate identification of the type of cancer present would lead to more personalised treatment that is more successful and cost-effective. This could ultimately lead to better cancer survival rates and greatly improved quality of life for patients.”