The fight against cancer is one that we haven’t won yet, but it seems that an expert at the University of Alberta, Canada believes that he has the key to take on malignant tumours at the molecular level and change the way patients are being treated.

Khaled Barakat, a research assistant professor in the Faculty of Pharmacy and Pharmaceutical Sciences at the University of Alberta, has long been mulling over how to develop a less invasive and more economical and efficient way to treat cancer. Thanks to his innovative ideas and a new research partnership between Alberta Cancer Foundation and the University of Alberta’s Li Ka Shing Institute of Virology, Barakat’s dream of taking the fight against cancer to molecular level may soon be a reality.

Barakat has been entrusted with the task of leading a “dream team” of the world’s greatest minds in oncology, virology, immunology, chemistry, dentistry and pharmaceutical sciences, in the battle against cancer and how cancer patients are treated.

Recent developments in cancer immunotherapy have shown tremendous promise by triggering the immune system to recognize tumours as “foreign agents” and destroy them.

“Malignant tumours are very smart; they deactivate the T cells, a very important part of the immune system, which normally circulate in the blood, detect bad cells and then destroy them,” says Barakat.

The research lead added that the team is currently working on small molecules that will replace the antibodies currently used in immunotherapy, which target specific proteins on the surface of T cells called immune checkpoints. Side-effects of drug treatment using antibodies include the potential for overactivation of the immune system, which sometimes results in the immune system attacking the organs and cells of the patient.

However, Barakat’s small-molecule treatment, called the Immune Checkpoint Program, will stimulate the T cells into naturally attacking the tumours by targeted specific binding sites on T cells with less risk of side-effects for the patient, partly because the molecules are in the body for less time.

The innovation of the research is that not only the small molecules are being used to reignite the body’s natural fight against tumours, but also that this treatment can be applied to many types of cancer.

“The concept has been proven by antibodies in many cancer types including advanced melanoma, one of the hardest cancers to treat,” notes Barakat.

“Our small molecules could be compared to a ‘magic drug’ that can be used against many types of cancer.”

As a potential therapy for cancer treatment, the small-molecule scenario has another important factor to consider: its cost. “Its development will result in being cheaper to make, hopefully causing the price for these drugs to be more affordable to many patients and health-care systems,” says Barakat.

The team plans to have a “lead structure”—an almost-ready drug that needs only small tweaking and optimization—in place by the end of the second year of the project. At that point, they will be seeking a pharmaceutical partner to develop this lead structure into a drug for human trials by 2020.

“Our idea is to build upon these successes, but to provide a new way of doing it, a way that is cheaper and in the meantime can reduce side-effects,” says Barakat. “We are working together from a number of disciplines at the U of A to come up with what we hope are better outcomes for cancer patients and those who suffer from chronic illness in Alberta and around the world.”