UBC gets funding to develop new cancer treatment

By Jasper Chu

Researchers at UBC are getting a financial boost to help develop a different way to treat cancer.

They’ve received $23.7 million from the federal government to work on a new form of radiation treatment, also known as radiopharmaceutical therapy.

The research lead says the therapy is a form of nuclear medicine that will be more targeted than traditional methods.

“They bind to cancer cells, but … don’t bind to healthy tissue. So you can use those if you attach a radioactive atom to that drug; you can use it [to] deliver a radioactive payload to the tumour site,” Dr. François Bénard explained in an interview with CityNews.

“So instead of using external beams, radioactivity, or radiation to treat cancers, you essentially inject a radioactive drug as it circulates through the body [and] accumulates at all sites where … cancer has spread.”

While led by UBC, the research is being done by a multidisciplinary team of individuals from organizations like BC Cancer, Simon Fraser University, Université Laval, and the University of Toronto, among others.

Their specific goal is to develop a new generation of radiation to combat what would be otherwise-difficult-to-treat cancers that have spread throughout the body. The researchers note traditional radiation treatments “rely on intense beams of energy shot from outside the body.” This makes use of these kinds of therapies limited.

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Bénard, a UBC professor who is an expert in cancer imaging, nuclear medicine, and radiopharmaceuticals, says the research is needed as the number of individuals with cancer in Canada is growing.

“Cancer will affect one out of two of us. It’s a disease that’s becoming more prevalent as the population is aging, becoming an increasing burden on society. About a quarter of people will die from advance cancers and most people who die from cancer is because the cancer has spread to multiple sites and is no longer at a stage at which surgery or external beam radiotherapy can cure the cancers,” he explained.

“The magnitude of the problem is important and we need multiple lines of treatments to be able to control those advanced cancers.”

A 2022 report released by the Canadian Cancer Society (CCS) shows 1.5 million Canadians were living with cancer at the beginning of 2018, many of them diagnosed in the past five to 25 years. The report says in 2017, 206,000 people were diagnosed with cancer. It was estimated that 233,900 people would be diagnosed in 2022, which the CCS believes is due to the growing aging population.

Bénard believes the new form of treatment that he and his team are working on will open new avenues of medicine and improve quality of life.

“It will improve [the] quality of life, prolong life. A cure is very hard when [cancer cells have] spread somewhere else, but there’s been reports published of patients with advance cancers who’ve been brought into remission with these treatments,” he said.

But it won’t be a one-size-fits-all solution, with Bénard saying not all cancers are the same.

He says as a result, usage of this treatment would be tailored to cancers that the therapy can detect.

Cancer treatment research funding a step in the right direction, researcher says

Bénard admits research into this treatment has been challenging.

He says multiple issues within the field of cancer research have been widespread throughout Canada and have affected his team as well. He adds Canada is behind in funding, infrastructure, and personnel needed to undertake cancer research properly.

“We’re starting to run out of space, physical space; we’re obviously in central Vancouver where space is at a premium,” he said.

“Because the field is doing well, there’s a lot of demand for skilled personnel, so we’re training people, and then companies hire them to develop radio particles, so many of us researchers are losing our staff to industry.”

COVID-19 lockdowns also created obstacles in researching this new treatment.

“The inability to meet in-person, we had to shut down the labs temporarily. It’s affected all of society, and research has not been immune to it obviously,” he explained.

According to a 2020 survey from the International Society for Stem Cell Research, 85 per cent of research laboratories were affected by the pandemic, either having to shut down or shift their research to COVID-19.

However, Bénard sees the $23.7 million investment from the federal government as a step in the right direction.

“Success from this program would come from taking new ideas and bringing it to patients, both in terms of new diagnostic tools to find where the cancer has spread and new treatments we can introduce in early-stage clinical trials,” he said.

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