Society 26/04/2022

First drug targeting cancer stem cells developed

Antibody developed by Barcelona's IRB and a Dutch biotech company slows tumour growth and metastasis

2 min
A laboratory in an archive image

BarcelonaIn recent years, monoclonal antibodies have become one of the tools with the greatest potential to combat the appearance of tumours and the generation of metastases. But transforming them into effective drugs is not easy anywhere in the world. The use of organoids (microscopic organs) could speed up the development process. This is precisely what researchers at Barcelona Institute for Research in Biomedicine (IRB), under the direction of Eduard Batlle, and the Dutch company Merus NV have verified. After eight years' research, they have succeeded in producing an antibody that acts specifically on cancer stem cells and limits tumour growth and the formation of metastases. The study, which is based on the generation of an extensive biobank of organoids, was published on Monday in the journal Nature Cancer.

The constitution of the organoid biobank, explains Batlle, who is an ICREA researcher in the colorectal cancer laboratory at IRB, is like a great "concept trial". "We show that organoids help develop drugs effectively," he says. In this case, a candidate to fight different forms of cancer, such as tumours in the head, neck, stomach and esophagus. In all these cases, it has been possible to carry out an "in vitro clinical trial" before moving on to patient testing. The key is the availability of micro-organs and the fact that it has been possible to test up to 500 different antibodies until researchers hit on the one that recognised cancer stem cells best. It is the "most innovative approach so far" in this field, the researcher emphasises.

A laboratory working with stem cells, in an archive image.

A second aspect that stands out from the study is the high specificity of the drug that emerged and the few side effects it causes. The drug has already been tested on a small group of only seven patients with very encouraging results, with partial remissions and one case of total cure. In all patients, moreover, a clear reduction in tumour size was observed. The new therapy is called MLA-158 and the Dutch biotech company is expected to report further results later this year. "The study continues to progress with the inclusion of more patients," says Batlle, and the refinement of the research techniques described.

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