Tiny Barcodes Provide a Huge Advance in Personalized Cancer Therapy

November 10, 2016
Kevin Hattori

In process similar to allergy testing, tiny quantities of different “barcoded” drugs are tested inside patient’s tumor to determine effectiveness

Technion Professor Avi Schroeder

Using synthetic DNA sequences as the tiniest of barcodes, Technion researchers have developed a new diagnostic technology for determining the suitability of specific anticancer drugs to a specific patient – before treatment even begins. The study, published today in Nature Communications, was led by Assistant Professor Avi Schroeder of the Technion Faculty of Chemical Engineering and the Technion Integrated Cancer Center.

“The medical world is now moving towards personalized medicine, but treatments tailored only according to the patient’s genetic characteristics don’t always grant an accurate prediction of which medicine will be best for each patient,” explains Prof. Schroeder. “We, however, have developed a technology that complements this field.”

Together with doctoral student Zvi Yaari and other researchers, Prof. Schroeder created what amounts to a safe, miniature lab in each patient’s body, which examines the effectiveness of a specific drug in that individual patient.

The researchers packed miniscule quantities of anticancer drugs inside of dedicated nanoparticles they developed. The unique design of the anticancer drug-loaded nanoscale packages gives them the ability to flow in the bloodstream to the tumor, where they are swallowed by the cancer cells. Synthetic DNA sequences attached to the anticancer drugs in advance serve as barcode readers of each drug’s activity in the cancer cells.

After 48 hours a biopsy is taken from the tumor, and the barcode analysis provides accurate information about the cells that were (or were not) destroyed by each drug. In essence, the system monitors the effect of each drug on the patient’s tumor cells. The researchers are currently working with drugs registered as anticancer drugs, but in principle, they can test a battery of drugs for each patient and find out which is the most effective drug to treat his or her disease.

“It’s a bit like testing for allergies, where simple tests provide us with a specific person’s allergy profile. Here we developed a simple test that provides us with a profile of the patient’s response to the designated drug. This method makes it possible to test the effectiveness of several drugs concurrently in the patient’s tumor, in minute doses not felt by the patient, and which do not pose any danger to him or her. Based on the test results, the most effective drug for the specific patient is selected.”

The study, based on experiments in mice, focused on the effect of various drugs on Triple Negative type breast cancer – a particularly challenging cancer that does not respond well to standard treatment and which presents difficulties for doctors to match the drug to the patient. To make sure the experiment does indeed examine the effect of the drug itself, and not the possible effect of the nanoscale package, “placebo packages” that did not contain drugs were also inserted into tumors. The result: the anticancer drugs were found at the end of the process mainly in dead cancer cells – i.e. they had killed them – while the placebo packages were found mainly in live tumor cells, i.e. they had not killed the cells. A comparison between the various anticancer drugs also found differences in the effectiveness of the various drugs.

“This technology provides a new window into fundamental insights about the mechanisms of cancer and resistance to various drugs,” says Prof. Schroeder, “but my thoughts are also practical: how our research could help people. Therefore, I am thrilled by the current success. It will take a lot more work to turn our development into a product that is available to the public, but I believe we’ll see it at the clinic within a few years.”

The study is being funded by a prestigious H2020-ERC grant from the European Union and by the Israel Science Foundation and the Israel Cancer Association. The new technology was patented and now there are discussions regarding its commercialization.

The researchers’ work was supported by the EU-FP7 Marie Curie Program, Israel Science Foundation, Israel Cancer Association, Israel Ministry of Economy, GIF, ERC, Mallat Family Foundation and the Alon Fellowship and a Taub Fellowship. The researchers also thank the staff of the Technion’s Lorry I. Lokey Interdisciplinary Center for Life Sciences and Engineering, and the Russell Berrie Nanotechnology Institute, for their expert technical assistance.

The Technion-Israel Institute of Technology is a major source of the innovation and brainpower that drives the Israeli economy, and a key to Israel’s renown as the world’s “Start-Up Nation.” Its three Nobel Prize winners exemplify academic excellence. Technion people, ideas and inventions make immeasurable contributions to the world including life-saving medicine, sustainable energy, computer science, water conservation and nanotechnology. The Joan and Irwin Jacobs Technion-Cornell Institute is a vital component of Cornell Tech, and a model for graduate applied science education that is expected to transform New York City’s economy.

The Technion Integrated Cancer Center (TICC) is a multidisciplinary center that expedites the discovery of new diagnostic tools and treatments in the fight against cancer via a collaborative “bench-to-bedside” approach. The interaction of researchers in all areas of science, with engineers and clinicians, including oncologists, helps translate basic discoveries into medical applications. The process culminates in clinical trials at TICC’s five affiliated hospitals. The TICC will be inaugurated on November 20, 2016.

American Technion Society (ATS) donors provide critical support for the Technion—more than $2 billion since its inception in 1940. Based in New York City, the ATS and its network of supporters across the U.S. provide funds for scholarships, fellowships, faculty recruitment and chairs, research, buildings, laboratories, classrooms and dormitories, and more.