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New microbubble technology found to kill pancreatic tumour cells


No cancer is a ‘good’ cancer. But some are worse than others. Pancreatic cancer tends to be asymptomatic until the tumour is large and established, and surgery often isn’t an option. Chemotherapies are administered through the bloodstream, and it’s estimated that only 1% of the drug may get to the actual tumour.

Researchers at Ulster University have dedicated their careers to create SonoTarg, which could be a new lease of life for patients with this deadly disease.

A simplistic way of explaining SonoTarg is that it uses microbubbles that burst when they’re activated by ultrasound technology. By putting chemotherapy drugs in these microbubbles, they can target the exact location of the pancreatic tumour, applying ultrasound to the patient’s abdomen, releasing the drugs with pinpointed accuracy.

Founder John Callan explains why this is important. “Pancreatic cancer has atrocious survival rates; a mere 5% of patients will be alive five years after diagnosis. Only 20% of patients are eligible for surgery, which is currently the only hope of a cure.”

One of the other challenges with pancreatic tumours is that there’s a very dense protective coating (a stromal barrier) around the tumour. This tissue acts like a shield preventing drugs from getting in.

How the microbubbles appear under the microscope

Schematic of the microbubble

In addition to using their microbubbles to zero in on the tumour with conventional chemotherapy drugs, the researchers have also incorporated a completely new sonodynamic treatment. John explains, “This involves the activation of an otherwise harmless drug that has no effect on the body – but when it comes into contact with ultrasound, it converts normal oxygen we breathe into a highly reactive form of oxygen that kills cells. In this case, cancer cells.”

Using their ultrasonic-activated microbubbles with the double hit of two cancer-killing drugs, is “Much more effective than chemo alone,” says John.

The microbubbles are 100 times smaller than the diameter of a human hair. Luckily they are used in medicine already for ultrasound imaging. This is important because it means the company – which will eventually be a spinout from Ulster University – is already on a path to getting the therapy approved for use in humans. This could shave years off the approval process.

John says, “We’ve reformulated the microbubbles. We discovered that if you increase the pressure on the bubble, but still at very safe levels of ultrasound, it will burst.”

This process, delivering drugs using ultra-sound induced cavitation – is an example of precision medicine. An animation on SonoTarg’s website depicts the process visually.

John explains the two main benefits:

1. More of the drug goes straight to the tumour rather than other healthy parts of the body, reducing side effects;

2. When the bubble bursts, the critical processes that drive that event help carry the drug deeper into the tumour tissue.

When this could be brought to market? John says, “We have conducted lab-based preclinical testing. We’ve demonstrated that this works in a lab setting. The next step is for us to show that this works in human patients and that it’s safe.”

He goes on, “All of the bits have been used safely in humans before, we’ve just packaged them differently. If all the ducks fall in a row, we’d intend to be at that point towards the end of next year – or the beginning of 2020.” He cautions however, “We still have some development work to do before then.”

It’s hard for me to imagine how researchers manipulate organic materials that small. I ask, what sort of technical work is on-going now? He says, “We’re optimising the manufacturing process to produce bubbles with batch-to-batch reproducibility.” John tells me that he hopes that manufacturing process would take place in Northern Ireland, at least “Initially, for the trial.”

SonoTarg has five co-founders, three academics and two practicing doctors. The team has been developing the therapy for “Six or seven years now, at least,” John says.

SonoTarg founders. Clockwise from top left: Prof John Callan, Prof Mark Taylor, Prof Tony McHale, Prof Eleanor Stride, Dr Mark Love

Will there be an opportunity for investors? “We have some investors who seem quite keen. We’ve taken some development funding from Invest NI as well,” John says.

SonoTarg is now a finalist in the 2018 Invent Awards competition in the Life and Health Sciences category.

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