Every year approximately 14 million people are diagnosed with cancer. This is usually seen as a death sentence to many, however, UP is working to bring hope to cancer patients. According to the National Cancer Institute, 8.2 million cancer-related deaths occur worldwide and the number of new cancer cases will rise to 22 million within the next two decades. WHO defines cancer as “the transformation of normal cells into tumour cells in a multistage process that generally progresses from a pre-cancerous lesion to a malignant tumour. These changes are the result of the interaction between a person’s genetic factors and three categories of external agents, specifically, physical carcinogens, chemical carcinogens and biological carcinogens.”

UP has taken a ground-breaking step toward the cure in its innovative nuclear therapy research, conducted at the Steve Biko Academic Hospital. It is being operated as a combined effort between two research bodies, namely, UP’s Department of Nuclear Medicine and the European Commission’s science and knowledge service, the Joint Research Centre (JRC). The JRC is involved in a variety of projects and partners with many renowned scientists from all over the world. In collaboration with the Department of Nuclear Medicine, they are working towards furthering scientific knowledge on the subject of nuclear therapy to treat cancer. This partnership will allow the Department to treat advanced-stage prostate cancer patients using targeted alpha therapy (TAT).

According to the UP website, “TAT or alpha radiation is a fairly new approach to cancer treatment and is based on the coupling of alpha particle-emitting radioisotopes to tumour-selective carrier molecules, such as monoclonal antibodies or peptides. In simpler terms, targeted alpha therapy uses drugs to target specific genes or proteins that are present in cancer cells to stop the cancer from growing and spreading.”

Head of the Department of Nuclear Medicine, Professor Mike Sathekge, said that “what makes alpha therapy so effective, compared to other radio-immunotherapy treatments […], is its ability to kill the cancer cells by causing double-strand breaks to the cancer’s DNA molecules and cluster breaks. Alpha radiation can kill cells that otherwise exhibit resistance to treatment with beta- or gamma-irradiation or chemotherapeutic drugs, and offers a therapeutic option for patients resistant to conventional therapies.”

The treatment is promising as it has already shown an 85% success rate in patients with advanced-stage prostate cancer. The Department of Nuclear Medicine is not only one of the three platforms in the world to provide this treatment, but it is the only one in Africa. Furthermore, the Department plans to explore “the efficacy of alpha-targeted therapy for the treatment of cancers such as melanoma”, and also to acquire “a better understanding of epigenetics, which is the study of heritable changes in gene function that do not involve changes in the DNA sequence, in order to better understand the spread of cancer.” With approximately 100 000 people in South Africa being diagnosed with cancer annually, Professor Sathekge emphasised the importance of the partnership with the JRC that will allow the Department to make “life-changing contributions to patients with advanced cancer.”


Image: Zanna Linde

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