Researchers at Rice University are working on an entirely NEW way to treat cancer, that could make harsh drugs like chemotherapy a treatment of the past.
Let me explain.
What if instead of buying expensive cancer drugs, that can only be administered laboriously inside a hospital, your body could make them for you, inside a tiny-sized “drug factory”?
As anyone who has had cancer knows, going to the hospital for an infusion of immunotherapy or chemotherapy can take days or weeks. With daily infusion ranging anywhere from three to 24 hours at a time, while the patient is strapped to an IV that won’t stop beeping. After months of treatment, the patient might learn everything has changed — the cancer is now resistant, and they’ve got to start all over, maybe with a new drug. It’s exhausting, time-consuming, and expensive and cancer patients are left with little hope.
But what if it didn’t have to be that way?
Immunotherapy is one of the most promising cancer treatments ever developed, curing previously incurable cancers — but it has limitations. It works in less than 50% of cancer patients. Not only that, certain immunotherapy treatments, like Proleukin — which is made from Interleukin-2, an immune cell your body naturally makes — have harsh side effects. Proleukin specifically has a low half-life (which means it leaves your body quickly, within minutes) and requires frequent applications. The problem is, when given systemically and frequently, as is needed, it’s tough for patients to handle. For these reasons, it’s given intravenously in an ICU and isn’t sustainable at high doses.
That’s because immune responses are a delicate balancing act. You want your body to send in immune cells and cytokines (like Interleukin-2) to fight tumor cells, but too much of an immune response — as anyone suffering from auto-immune disease or dealing with “cytokine storm” knows — is dangerous. Interleukin-2 needs a local target, that’s how the body designed it to work.
When Interleukin-2 is used in cancer treatment and works, it works well. But as previously mentioned, it’s difficult to administer and comes with many issues. But what if we could solve all of those problems?
What if instead of paying for expensive, difficult-to-administer cancer drugs, you could receive an injection of programmed cells that make a continuous dose of Interleukin-2 where it’s needed most … at your tumor site? What if this lasted for weeks or months and the burden of invasive cancer treatment suddenly became less expensive, less time-consuming and WORKED BETTER?
That’s where Dr. Omid Veiseh comes in. He’s an Associate Professor in the Department of Bioengineering at Rice University, where he runs a research program aimed at engineering next-generation treatments for a wide range of human diseases, including cancer.
He and his team have been working on NANO DRUG FACTORIES, which are exactly what the name implies. These are implantable “drug factories” — tiny in size, made up of engineered cells — that can deliver continuous doses of Interleukin-2, which activates your body’s immune response to fight cancer. This means you can receive the implant on one day, go home the next, and for two to four weeks the drug factory stays open 24/7, inside your body while you go about your life.
So instead of giving Interleukin-2 systemically, in a hospital which causes serious issues, it’s being produced locally, inside of YOU the cancer patient.
In preliminary animal studies, Veiseh and his team (including Amanda M. Nasha and Samira Aghlara-Fotovat) were able to eradicate tumors in 100% of animals with ovarian cancer and in seven of eight animals with colorectal cancer. In a mouse study of mesothelioma, tumor burden was reduced by 80% after 1 week of monotherapy treatment (meaning they only used the IL-2 drug factories), and 7 of 7 animals exhibited tumor eradication without recurrence when IL2 cytokine factories were combined with anti–programmed cell death protein 1 (PD-1, another immunotherapy, known as a checkpoint inhibitor).
Now, I know what you’re thinking. This sounds promising, but it’s animal studies and seems like futuristic far away technology for humans. Well, it’s not. Veiseh and his team are currently using these nano drug factories in human clinical trials for Ovarian cancer. And it gets better.
They’re expanding the scope of their drug factories with another version of the implant, that contains an electronic component that can monitor the tumor microenvironment in real-time and send that data back to the oncologist who can then adjust doses and treatment based on how the cancer is behaving.
“Instead of tethering patients to hospital beds, IV bags, and external monitors, we’ll use a minimally invasive procedure to implant a small device that continuously monitors their cancer and adjusts their immunotherapy dose in real-time,” explained Veiseh in the original press release from Rice University.
This is the moment my mind was blown!
This new iteration is the work of Veiseh and dozens of other researchers, spanning across several universities and institutions like MD Anderson. All of these scientists and engineers are working on the device now.
The project is referred to HAMMR and THOR –THOR is the overall program and HAMMR is the actual device. Veiseh and his colleagues just received $45 million from the federal government (via the Advanced Research Projects Agency for Health, aka ARPA-H) to fast-track this technology to be up and running in clinical trials in less than 5 years.
One MAJOR issue in cancer treatment is that cancer evolves. The tumor microenvironment — essentially the terrain cancer manipulates to evade the immune system and utilize your body’s machinery for itself — is constantly changing and learning to bypass treatment. Cancers become chemo-and-immunotherapy resistant. Trying to play catch-up can feel like a fruitless endeavor that haunts oncologists and patients alike. Being able to monitor that microenvironment and make clinical decisions in real-time is a GAME CHANGER.
I was lucky enough to interview Dr. Omid Veiseh for my podcast THE ANTICANCER LIFE, which I’m posting below. In our conversation, we talked about how cancer evades the immune system, how his nano drug factories work, and what the future holds with HAMMR and THOR, including applications for other drugs and other diseases. One of the most exciting things I learned from this conversation is just how far along they are in this research; how immunotherapy lessens the likelihood of recurrence by teaching your immune system what to look for; and how chemotherapy could become a harsh treatment of the PAST.
Take a listen below or find it on Spotify and Apple!