Tech Transfer eNews Blog

Purdue researchers develop novel immunotherapy approach to treating solid tumors

By Jesse Schwartz
Published: December 16th, 2020

Researchers at Purdue University have developed a new approach to cancer immunotherapy that could potentially become a universal treatment for solid tumors.

Rather than targeting the cancer cells themselves, the technology focuses on immune system cells that feed and protect the tumor. The body typically employs these cells after an illness or injury to keep the normal healing process in balance. But with cancer, the cells can end up keeping the body’s own defenses from killing tumors.

“We can reprogram the immune cells within the tumor to help kill the tumor instead of allowing these cells to help the tumor grow,” says Philip Low, researcher at Purdue and co-developer of the new approach. “It’s just been realized recently that as a global approach to eradicating a solid tumor, we need to also treat the healthy, non-malignant cells in the tumor.”

The treatment also involves an anti-cancer drug that Low and his research partner Timothy Ratliff linked to a type of vitamin B known as folate.

“These tumor-associated macrophages love folate,” Low says. “They have an enormous appetite for it. They take it up right away, and if they don’t, the compound passes in the urine within about 30 minutes. So we’re using folate as a kind of Trojan horse to trick the tumor-promoting immune cells into eating a drug that will reprogram them into tumor-fighting immune cells.”

Normally the drug would be too toxic for human use, so part of the researchers’ efforts have been ensuring that the payload is released solely within the tumor-promoting cells, and any excess is quickly excreted.

“There’s a lot of molecular design and chemistry to optimize this combination,” says Low. “We are designing them so that if they are not taken up by the cancer-promoting cells right away, then they are out of there. If the drug isn’t used right away, we want it gone.”

The treatment has been shown to work in six different tumor types in human tumor cells, both in the laboratory and in animal models.

“I think there’s a reasonable chance this could make it to the public within seven years or something like that,” Low adds. “It would probably cost a couple hundred million dollars, at the very least, to develop and test this drug, so it’s not going to be cheap, and it’s not going to be easy. But this drug has enormous potential to save many lives. So, we will do our best.”

Source: Purdue Research News

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