Health & Wellbeing

New approach to battling breast cancer

Published Apr 14, 2020

A Victoria University of Wellington researcher has discovered a completely new way to approach breast cancer treatment—and Wellington UniVentures has been working alongside her from the beginning, to ensure the discovery is ultimately transformed into a product that can start helping the 3,000 women and 20 men who are diagnosed with the disease every year in New Zealand.

The principal cause of death from breast cancer remains the spread of primary tumours to other parts of the body (metastasis). And while current anti-cancer drugs focus on killing rapidly dividing cancer cells, they also affect normal cells in the process—causing patients to experience adverse toxic side effects as a result.

But Dr Olga Zubkova—from the University’s Ferrier Research Institute—is taking a completely different treatment approach. She has developed a preliminary set of novel, sugar-based, non-toxic compounds that inhibit an enzyme called heparanase, which could ultimately restrict the growth of tumours and prevent the spread of breast cancer to other tissues—all with no patient side-effects.

“An overexpression (or abundance) of heparanase in the body weakens the ‘glue’ that holds cells together, breaking down tissue barriers and enabling cancer cells to escape and spread to other tissues, such as brain and liver,” Olga explains. “Rather than attacking rapidly dividing cells—like conventional treatments—our compounds target and inhibit heparanase enzymes that are in ‘overdrive’, strengthening tissue barriers and containing cancer cells as a result.”

She says they have synthesised the compounds from a specific combination of inexpensive, commonly available sugars. “We don’t believe that drugs must always be expensive. The low cost of our base product means we think we can produce an effective yet affordable drug treatment.”

Awarded $100,000 of funding from the Breast Cancer Foundation New Zealand, and $1 million from the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment, Olga and her team have been working closely with Wellington UniVentures to protect their intellectual property, and navigate an appropriate pathway to commercialisation.

“Getting any type of new drug to market is an expensive process, so having the Wellington UniVentures team alongside to help us write proposals, secure funds and introduce us to potential investors has been absolutely invaluable,” says Olga.

She says that they ‘aren’t just business people giving business advice’. “Many of the team are scientists themselves, so they know how to ask the right questions and truly understand the issues that can arise when you’re a scientist working to commercialise your research.”

Already proven to significantly hinder the spread of blood and bone cancer in an animal model, the bio-inspired compounds were recently tested in Israel, during a collaboration with Professor Israel Vlodavsky—considered the world's leading expert in the study of the heparanase enzyme.

“When the compounds almost completely eliminated myeloma tumours in mice, Professor Vlodavsky declared the test results to be 'clear and profound',” says Olga.

Wellington UniVentures Senior Commercialisation Manager Jeremy Jones says that while the project has a strong initial focus on metastatic breast cancer, it’s expected that the technology could be applied to the treatment of many different cancers in the future—and as a long-term, safe maintenance therapy to help patients in remission to stay cancer-free.

“There is also potential for the compounds (which ‘cool’ inflammation) to be used for wound and bone healing, for neuro-inflammatory diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Multiple Sclerosis, and even for anti-ageing purposes—with one of the world’s largest cosmeceutical companies already expressing interest in the research,” says Jeremy.

For more information, please contact the Commercialisation Manager below.

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Jeremy Jones

Senior Commercialisation Manager

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