New study using nuclear medicine and rare isotopes in the fight against cancer

Dr. Len Luyt, Lawson Scientist and Professor at Western

June 13, 2023

In a national multicentre study, scientists at Lawson Health Research Institute and Western University are working to create rare isotopes that will be used as an important tool to help treat cancer.

Currently, radiation therapy is a staple in cancer treatment, with approximately 50 per cent of cancer patients receiving radiation at some point in their cancer journey. Although a very effective tool, traditional radiation therapies rely on intense beams of energy. These beams can kill cancer cells, but their use is limited to select locations, making them less suited for difficult-to-treat metastatic cancers that have spread to multiple sites.

“Cancer treatment has evolved over the years with targeted drugs that go straight to the cancer and advanced radiation therapy. However, radiation comes from an external source that can damage other areas in the body,” says Dr. Len Luyt, Lawson Scientist and Professor at Western. “We are now working to advance treatment further by combining radiation and targeted drug therapy.”

The therapies work like a homing device — using specially designed molecules to seek out and deliver radioactive isotopes directly to cancer cells, wherever they might be in the body.

The multidisciplinary research team involves researchers at Lawson, Western University, University of British Columbia, BC Cancer, TRIUMF, Simon Fraser University, Université Laval, Université de Sherbrooke, University of Toronto and University of Alberta.

“This is the holy grail of cancer treatment. These disease-targeting molecules circulate throughout the body, binding tightly to cancer cells in order to eliminate them with a highly localized blast of energy,” explains principal investigator Dr. François Bénard, Professor of Radiology and Associate Dean at UBC’s Faculty of Medicine, and Senior Executive Director of the BC Cancer Research Institute.

The London, Ontario team will focus on developing the radio pharmaceuticals at labs in the London Regional Cancer Program at LHSC, the Cyclotron located at St. Joseph’s Health Care London, and at Western. 

“The radio pharmaceuticals we are designing will be very specific to certain receptor proteins that are on cancer cells and not elsewhere on the body. This allows us to bring the isotopes to the cancer cells and clear it from the body so you have less side effects in other areas,” says Dr. Luyt. “This approach is showing promise in prostate cancer and now this team-based approach is looking at targeting any metastatic cancer.”

This collaborative research project has received $23.7 million in federal funding through the New Frontiers Research Fund (NFRF) over six years.

“We will establish Canada as a world leader in the field of nuclear medicine and ensure Canadian patients are the ones who benefit,” adds Dr. Bénard. “By developing these medicines in Canada and bringing them into local clinical trials, we will ensure Canadians have access to innovative cancer treatments sooner.”

The team hopes to bring multiple drug candidates into clinical trials in the coming years with the ultimate goal of developing an effective treatment for metastatic cancer patients. 

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