A new EU-funded project will exploit cancer's 'Achilles heel' to develop new therapies against the disease. The researchers will focus their efforts in particular on three cancers whose survival rates remain relatively low, namely lung, ovarian and bladder cancer. The initiative is called Apotherapy, a contraction of 'apoptosis (cell death) therapy'. 'We will use our knowledge of key apoptosis pathways to create new therapies,' explained project coordinator Aristides Eliopoulos of the Molecular and Cellular Biology Laboratory at the University of Crete Medical School. Specifically, the initiative will target a protein called CD40, a receptor molecule found on the surface of many cancerous cells which the researchers believe could be used to induce the body's immune system to destroy the malignant cells. 'CD40 offers a great opportunity to make the body stronger and the cancer weaker,' Professor Eliopoulos told CORDIS News. 'It is the Achilles heel of cancer.' No existing cancer drugs take advantage of the CD40 pathway, yet it has a number of properties which make it a good target for new drugs. Many tumour cells produce CD40, and activating this pathway in the tumour cells can inhibit their growth. In addition, CD40 has the potential to boost the body's immune system; setting off the CD40 signalling pathway can stimulate the production of dendritic cells, which in turn produce proteins which activate the immune system to fight the cancer. Finally, activating the CD40 pathway in tumour cells themselves renders them more susceptible to recognition by the body's immune system. A drug which targets the CD40 pathway would be a CD40 ligand - a molecule which binds to the CD40 receptor. However, developing the drug is only part of the story; one of the partners, German pharmaceutical company Novosom, will be working on how to get the CD40 activating proteins to the tumour site. Together with colleagues from Helsinki and Uppsala, Professor Eliopoulos will test a series of gene therapy vectors to deliver high levels of the CD40 ligand to the cancer cells. Professor Eliopoulos also emphasised the importance of targeting the tumour cells at several levels. 'A combinatorial approach is needed for maximal clinical efficiency,' he said. With this in mind, the project partners plan to combine drugs based on CD40 activating proteins with standard chemotherapy or innovative therapies which cut off the signals necessary for cancer cell survival. Some of these signals have already been identified and drugs developed to exploit them. The Apotherapy project has been granted €2 million in funding from the Sixth Framework Programme's 'Life sciences, genomics and health' priority. The project consortium is made up of seven partners from as many countries, and includes academic scientists, oncologists and biotechnology researchers. Professor Eliopoulos has been studying the CD40 pathway for years and is excited at the prospect of collaborating with prominent oncologists from across Europe to develop an effective cancer therapy. 'This is a great chance of us,' he commented. 'We are confident that in the near future, we will be able to progress the best of our developed strategies into clinical practice for the benefit of cancer sufferers.'
Czechia, Germany, Greece, Finland, Italy, Sweden