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Department of Engineering

Targeting hard-to-treat cancers

Targeting hard-to-treat cancers

Crystalline metal–organic framework

Cambridge leads a £10 million interdisciplinary collaboration to target the most challenging of cancers.

We are going to pierce through the body’s natural barriers and deliver anti-cancer drugs to the heart of the tumour.

Professor George Malliaras

While the survival rate for most cancers has doubled over the past 40 years, some cancers such as those of the pancreas, brain, lung and oesophagus still have low survival rates.

Such cancers are now the target of an Interdisciplinary Research Collaboration (IRC) led by the University of Cambridge and involving researchers from Imperial College London, University College London and the Universities of Glasgow and Birmingham.

“Some cancers are difficult to remove by surgery and highly invasive, and they are also hard to treat because drugs often cannot reach them at high enough concentration,” explains George Malliaras, Prince Philip Professor of Technology in Cambridge’s Department of Engineering, who leads the IRC. “Pancreatic tumour cells, for instance, are protected by dense stromal tissue, and tumours of the central nervous system by the blood-brain barrier.”

The aim of the project, which is funded for six years by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council, is to develop an array of new delivery technologies that can deliver almost any drug to any tumour in a large enough concentration to kill the cancerous cells.

Chemists, engineers, material scientists and pharmacologists will focus on developing particles, injectable gels and implantable devices to deliver the drugs. Cancer scientists and clinicians from the Cancer Research UK Cambridge Centre and partner sites will devise and carry out clinical trials. Experts in innovative manufacturing technologies will ensure the devices are able to be manufactured and robust enough to withstand surgical manipulation.

One technology the team will examine is the ability of advanced materials to self-assemble and entrap drugs inside metal-organic frameworks. These structures can carry enormous amounts of drugs, and be tuned both to target the tumour and to release the drug at an optimal rate.

“We are going to pierce through the body’s natural barriers,” says Professor Malliaras, “and deliver anti-cancer drugs to the heart of the tumour.”

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