February 25, 2009, Updated September 13, 2012

Researchers from the Weizmann Institute hope the new tool they have developed could transform the world of cancer research and drug development.Cancer kills our loved ones, it tears lives apart. According to the American Cancer Society, one in every four American deaths can be blamed on the disease. Although millions of dollars worth of research money goes into fighting it, it always seems to outwit us. For some reason, chemotherapy works to treat cancer, but not all of the time, and not all cancers.

After a chemotherapy treatment, some resistant cancer cells get left behind and can go on to metastasize, begging the million-dollar question: why do some cancer cells survive a chemo blast while others get wiped out? Now, in a world?s first, scientists from the Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel may have the tool that gives us the answers.

Doctoral student Ariel Cohen, together with Naama Geva-Zatorsky and Eran Eden from Prof. Uri Alon?s lab at the Molecular Cell Biology Department, have found a way to tag and analyze thousands of cells in our body, to show how chemotherapy will attack.

The patented tool, recently highlighted in Science, is based on imaging and analyzing proteins. It promises to be the ultimate tool for cancer drug developers and those working in basic research.

Opening a window on the cell

“It’s a novel and new approach on how to look at biology,” says Cohen. “We’ve developed a technology to really look into the cells. Biology [as a discipline] opens small patches in a closed room. It’s like a house that’s closed, with a window that opens here and there and allows you to see only a little of what?s going on. Our tool opens the whole wall. It lets you look at what’s going on in the whole cell,” he tells ISRAEL21c.

While the tool the researchers hope to commercialize will be very useful for basic cancer research, they also expect it to have an immediate application for drug development.

Currently, pharmaceutical companies invest millions of dollars in promising compounds in a hit-and-miss sort of way, often without knowing how they will work. If developers could know what compounds and combinations of compounds would work optimally, cancer drug development could be propelled instantly ahead, without the years it takes checking compounds on animal models.

The tool developed at the Weizmann Institute could show the chemotherapy action on a cell, for instance, enabling drug developers to answer questions about what a drug does when it enters a cell, how the body absorbs that drug, or what causes toxicity.

“We enable researchers to understand what’s going on in a cell when it’s exposed to a drug. We can really observe the sequence of events at a sharp point in time and space,” says Cohen.

A virtual goldmine for pharma and science

Providing a method for imaging and analyzing many thousands of living cells to reveal exactly how a chemotherapy drug affects each one, the tool will allow drug developers to explore a more sophisticated, and thereby more effective, choice of compounds, he explains. Choosing what compounds to take to pre-clinical trials is very difficult, and is done with some doubt. “This will make their decision easier,” says Cohen, “There is a large appeal to the scientific community as well and not only pharma companies,” he stresses.

Through the Weizmann’s technology transfer company Yeda, the researchers are now looking for an investment. The computer-aided solution, which took several years of study, allows researchers to tag specific proteins in a group of cancer cells to give drug developers a leg up on the competition, and ultimately save lives.

Using a fluorescent-colored gene, the researchers have also found a way to capture images of the cells in a time-lapse sequence. When a chemotherapy drug is introduced, the researchers were able to “see” whether the cells were dying or defending themselves against the drug. The result is a library of tagged cells, images and data on cancer cell proteins – “a virtual goldmine of ready material for further cancer research,” says a Weizmann spokesman.

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Jason Harris

Jason Harris

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