Cancer continues to be one of the world’s worst diseases not just because there’s no guaranteed cure, but also because there are so many kinds to watch out for. Among the most commonly occurring cancers, pancreatic cancer is one of the gravest because standard therapies aren’t effective against it; in other words, it’s virtually incurable. This means patients who are affected by the disease don’t have much hope for a positive outlook.
This is the reason the team led by Valerie LeBleu (Ph.D.) of the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center, and Sushrut Kamerkar (Ph.D.) of the MD Anderson UT Health Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences and the Cancer Biology Program, decided to do their research on this particular type of cancer. And their focus is on this thing called “exosomes”.
Exosomes are tiny bubble-like sacs that are released by all cells and were initially believed to be mere waste products. Further studies revealed, however, that these sacs actually perform an important role. Because they are naturally present in blood, exosomes help facilitate inter-cellular communication by carrying important information (via various genetic materials like RNA, lipids and proteins) from one cell to another, pretty much like a messenger does.
The team resolved to capitalize on this internal communication system by modifying exosomes and tasking them to carry pancreatic-tumor-cell-seeking molecules. Specifically, they modified exosomes extracted from human skin cells and made them carry RNA that seek out a gene called KRAS. This particular gene is commonly associated with pancreatic cancer and when it mutates, it behaves like a power switch, perpetually staying in the ‘on’ mode, encouraging cancer cells to continue growing and multiplying.
The team then injected the modified exosomes – referred to as iExosomes — into mice with pancreatic cancer. The exosomes did what they were meant to — they sought out pancreatic cells with mutated KRAS, let themselves inside those cells, then turned off the KRAS gene. With the KRAS gene deactivated, tumor growth stopped and the mice got to live longer.
Moving forward from these promising results, human clinical trials are a logical next step. And one of the biggest challenges to make this possible is coming up with enough exosomes to scale up the needed dose for human trials. To put that into perspective, the team used a billion exosomes to make a single dose for their mice test subject. We’ll leave you to imagine just how much that is.
Everything else aside, MD Anderson has already licensed use of their exosome technology to Massachusetts-based research firm Codiak BioSciences. Hopefully, clinical trials being planned for next year will push through.
Details of the research were recently published in the scientific journal Nature.
Reference: The University of Texas MD Anderson Center