New Ways of Treating Breast Cancer

RWTH Aachen University Biotech Spin Off company wants to develop a drug to be administered early on during treatment of carcinoma of the breast

Qithera is the name of the company that professor Edgar Dahl and Michael Rose, MD, from the Institute of Pathology at RWTH Aachen University have founded. Shareholders, besides RWTH Aachen and the Chamber of Industry and Commerce, IHK, are furthermore other renowned individuals from the world of Biotechnology. For instance, Jürgen Schumacher, a co-founder of the globally successful diagnostics company Qiagen, which also started out at a university some thirty years ago.

For thirteen years now, the working group around professor Edgar Dahl has been researching a particularly aggressive form of breast cancer. This so-called basal carcinoma of the breast affects approximately 20 percent of all breast cancer patients. Every year, in Germany alone, approximately 14,000 women are found to have developed this aggressive variant of cancer, which metastizes very quickly. The only form of therapy to date is chemotherapy. Scholars Dahl and Rose, however, believe to have found a new plan of attack. A new defense mechanism that is produced naturally in the body serves as a model. This mechanism, which is tied to a molecule with the akward name ITIH5, can potentially inhibit metastasis.

Dahl and Rose have been able to prove in the laboratory that exactly this protective molecule tends to get lost when tumor cells begin to invasively spread within breast tissue. The still young tumor cells often change their shapes to spider-like masses that are particularly mobile. “In this stage, the tumor cells become dangerous, because now they can also afflict other organs via the bloodstream or lymphatic system,” explains Dahl.

Therapy method activates the body's own protective mechanism

The ITIH5 molecule can keep these aggressive tumor cells in check. But in order for the molecule to be able to do its job, it has to be switched on again in the diseased cells. When this happens, the researchers are able to observe a re-programming of the tumor cell: Genes that inhibit cell growth are effectively encouraged to get to work and genes that promote cell growth are impeded in their actions.

The RWTH Aachen scholars have been able to prove the efficacy of this mechanism on cells that originated from aggressive basal carcinoma of the breast. In the laboratory, also the re-programming has been accomplished. That is why the researchers are convinced that this new approach has definite merit and potential. A form of treatment that re-activates these inherent protective mechanisms of the body is a particularly suitable therapy for breast cancer in the beginning stages, since their potential to metastize is thereby blocked early on.

The business idea of the new company, Qithera, is to pharmacologically modify the ITIH5 molecule in such a manner that is can be developed as a therapeutic candidate. The body-inherent ITIH5 is a relatively large protein and therefore not as suitable for use as an active ingredient. It will be the task of the company's founders to “build” the needed molecule as small and robust as possible and to do so in the most effectual manner, so that it is suitable as a drug.

Even after having achieved first successes, Dahl and Rose are careful not to fall into premature euphoria. There are still too many open questions, which need to be answered by means of further experiments and steps in the development. Whether this new type of therapy might even replace chemotherapy one day cannot be ascertained yet, the scientists say. It will be years before a marketable drug can be presented.

Meanwhile the two scholars from Aachen have developed a business plan for their spin-off. First negotiations with potential investors are already under way. As soon as enough funds are on hand, Qithera GmbH will get to work at RWTH Aachen University Hospital to develop the new therapeutic candidate in close collaboration with other RWTH partners. The scholars' research has already been presented in a renowned science magazine.