Battling cancer with precision medicine
In an effort to improve the survival rate of cancer patients, the CSIR has teamed up with the University of Cape Town (UCT) to understand the genetic mutations that characterise some cancers, and use this to identify chemotherapeutic agents that will provide the best clinical outcomes.
Chemotherapeutic drugs are the heavy artillery in the fight against cancer, but they are still highly toxic to all rapidly-dividing cells in the body, leading to immune suppression, hair loss, and inflammation. Chemotherapy drugs vary in their ability to target specific cancer cells.
Genomic advances are making it possible to improve the survival rate of cancer patients by selecting the most efficacious drug. Traditionally, doctors have used cellular anatomy and molecular markers to choose between the hundreds of first-line chemotherapeutic drugs available to treat tumours.
To make the most of advances in the tools of cell biology, such as imaging and stem cell biology, researchers from the two institutes have joined forces to form the Biomedical Translational Research Initiative (BTRI). With a dual footprint at both the CSIR and UCT, the team works with clinicians to understand genetic variations that characterise a particular cancer and tie these to effective chemotherapeutic agents in order to recommend better treatment approaches to doctors.
The team uses molecular tools such as synthetic biology, imaging and microscopy to provide molecular diagnostics and targeting of tumours in clinical contexts where they can be highly effective. This research informs what mutations or variants are driving a tumour, which allows the researchers to identify specific drugs that are best tailored to work against those mutations.
BTRI will initially focus on breast and colorectal cancer. The people of Africa, and especially southern Africa, have the greatest degree of genetic diversity in the world. Yet nearly all cancer research occurs outside Africa on non-African patients. As a result, the genetic variants that have been discovered and linked to successful therapeutic regimens and positive clinical outcomes, all originate from Europe and North America. These same genetic variants are far less common in Africa, where, instead, never-before-seen genetic variants occur. This means that genetic variants that result in good or poor prognosis remain largely unidentified in African populations and thus are unable to inform therapy, hence the elevated mortality and morbidity rates of cancer in Africa.
The BTRI is funded by the Department of Science and Technology and implemented by the CSIR.
Dr Musa Mhlanga