Doctoral students to develop anti-tumour drugs that do not harm healthy cells

€4m project is being coordinated by Bielefeld University in Germany

The researchers want to 'package' the anti-tumour agent cryptophycin in such a way that it only targets cancer cells. The image shows how cryptophycin binds to a protein molecule, as also occurs in cancer cells, thus preventing their growth. Image: Bielefeld University

Doctoral students of the Magicbullet network will be working on medicines that specifically target cancer cells and deliver their active agent without harming healthy cells from the middle of this year.

Bielefeld University in Germany is coordinating the programme for the development of 'gentle' cancer treatments with European Union funding of around €4m.

Fifteen doctoral students with backgrounds in chemistry, biology and biomedicine will conduct research in the network until 2018. Six universities, a research institute and two companies in Germany, Italy, Finland and Hungary will train the doctoral students in a joint network and will be supported additionally by three companies and two research institutes.

Current cancer therapies are usually accompanied by severe side effects because the active agents are designed to poison and kill the cancer cells. They also damage healthy cells, says Professor Dr Norbert Sewald, the coordinator of the new programme, a European Training Network for young researchers in the frame of the Marie Skłodowska-Curie actions.

Professor Dr Norbert Sewald is conducting research on anti-tumour drugs designed to work without side effects. He is coordinating the new international network of doctoral students. Photo: Bielefeld University

The development of targeted, gentle cancer medication involves the Magicbullet researchers attaching the toxic active agent (payload) to a peptide (a small protein molecule – delivery vector). These delivery vectors recognise molecules that are typical for tumour cells, bind to them and deliver the payload.

'The delivery vectors are a kind of address label containing information as to where the anti-tumour payloads are to be delivered,' says Sewald, who thinks such new treatments could fulfil the earlier vision of Nobel laureate Paul Ehrlich (1854–1915), who coined the term 'magic bullets' for such tumour-targeting conjugates.

Sewald says drugs based on this principle are already on the market, but they contain antibodies – large protein molecules produced by means of biotechnology – which have to be purified elaborately and are, therefore, very expensive.

'We want to develop small protein molecules, or peptides, as the transporters of the active agent,' says Sewald. 'The advantage is that the chemical processes to produce them are simpler and quicker than those for antibodies.'

Peptides can take a higher load of active agent and easily penetrate tissue, which is what makes them so special. They are also approximately 100 times smaller than antibodies.

'Our drugs will be prototypes,' says Sewald. 'But we will be creating the scientific basis for anti-tumour medicines which could come on the market in perhaps 10 or 20 years’ time.'