Tumour detective work

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Being diagnosed with cancer comes as a great shock for those concerned and their families. With many forms of cancer, the chances of a completely recovery are small – especially if the cancer is detected at a late stage and has already spread around the body. Some patients may perhaps have a little more reason to hope in future, however. This may be the case for example with some breast or ovarian cancer patients: the tumours increasingly form specific enzymes that are partly responsible for the cancer cells spreading. Special drugs can be used to deactivate them individually, thereby slowing the growth of the cancer cells.

What exactly is meant by personalized cancer medicine?

Because the disease can be attributed to genetic specificities in some but not all cancer patients, scientists talk here about “personalized” or “individualized” cancer therapy. This is not so much about a type of medicine that takes the patient and all their needs into account, but more about focusing on the tumour’s individual peculiarities. These individual characteristics can make targeted therapy possible in some cases.

Biomarkers reveal details about the disease progression

Doctors use what are known as biomarker tests to identify such cellular changes in a patient’s tumour tissue. The presence or absence of these biomarkers helps researchers predict which kind of drug will be effective, which therapy the patient will respond well to and how high the correct dosage is. It is precisely these biomarkers that the “German-Australian Network of Personalized Cancer Medicine” researchers are interested in. Among other things, they are exploring the tumour biology of a family of particular enzymes, namely kallikrein-related peptidases (KLKs). “We are conducting research into biomarkers which can predict the progression of a disease to some extent and allow us to foresee which drugs may perhaps work better than others”, says Professor Viktor Magdolen. He works at the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology of the Technical University of Munich (TUM) and is the network’s spokesperson. For four years, the network has been funded as part of the “Strategic Partnerships and Thematic Networks” programme run by the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD).

Important research success with ovarian cancer

Eleven partners have joined forces in the German-Australian Network: apart from three TUM institutes, research partners of Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität München (LMU), the Max Planck Society, the Helmholtz Association and four institutes of the Queensland University of Technology (QUT) Brisbane and a working group at the Mater Medical Research Institute of the University of Queensland (UQ) are taking part. One of the joint research successes achieved by the partners so far is in the area of ovarian cancer: they have identified enzymes from the KLK family which facilitate the spread of tumours in the ovaries. “Our Australian colleagues are now researching special inhibitors which could slow down the tumour’s growth in future”, explains Magdolen.

International networks are especially valuable for research

But why do the scientists keep putting up with a distance – as the crow flies – of nearly 16,000 kilometres between them in order to conduct joint research? “International contacts such as those we cultivate with Australia are very valuable to us. Our research results need to be validated, which requires numerous tests. This can only be achieved with highly competent partners”, says emeritus professor Dr Manfred Schmitt, former director of the Clinical Research Group at the TUM gynaecology clinic. What is more, cancer depends in some cases on ethnic conditions, he explains, going on to say that he and his colleagues rely on international partners so as to obtain access to certain tests and research results. “We are also tasked with training doctors, who have to understand the drugs exactly and know how they work. Medical training differs from country to country, however – which is also why we attach great importance to international cooperation.” The collaborations therefore include not only intensive research workshops but also exchanges for students and doctoral researchers.

Basic research is the first step

Obviously the network partners are keen to develop tailor-made drugs to fight cancer. The first step, however, is to pursue basic research. “Perhaps this will then lead in a few years’ time to promising therapy possibilities”, hopes Schmitt.



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