Technology could help usher in personalised chemotherapy

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New technology being developed at Florida State University could significantly decrease the cost of drug discovery, a development that could lead to personalised chemotherapy treatments for cancer patients.

The details, published in a recent publication of the journal Biomaterials, outline the work of Steven Lenhert, a Florida State biology assistant professor and principal investigator on the research effort.

‘Right now, cancer patients receive chemotherapy treatments that are based on the accumulated knowledge of what has worked best for people with similar cancers,’ said Lenhert. ‘This is the case because hospitals don’t have the technology to test thousands of different chemotherapy mixtures on the tumour cells of an individual patient. This technology could give them access to that capability, making the treatments truly personalised and much more effective.’

According to a statement, the key to Lenhert’s invention is miniaturising the first phase of a process used by pharmaceutical companies to discover new drugs.

Currently, these companies use large, specialised laboratories to test hundreds of thousands of compounds on different cell cultures in a process known as high throughput screening. The equipment and manpower cost is substantial, even though only a tiny fraction of the compounds will ever make it to the next phase of testing.

Lenhert’s technology is said to miniaturise that process by printing all of the compounds on a single glass surface and testing them on cells using a technique involving liposome microarrays, which are collections of drug-containing oil drops on a surface.

If fully employed in the pharmaceutical industry, this technology would make the cost of this expensive process a thousand times cheaper, creating the potential for personalised cancer treatments, lower-cost medicine and more affordable, higher-quality healthcare options.

‘In looking at the first phase of the drug-discovery process, it struck me how, in this age of extreme miniaturisation, we are still using rooms full of robots and equipment to test drug compounds,’ said Lenhert. ‘It reminded me of the early days of computers where you needed huge, room-spanning pieces of hardware to do the most mundane tasks. I said, “There has to be a better way”.’

Lenhert’s nanotechnology has been demonstrated as a proof of concept on a small scale with cells commonly grown in university laboratories.

His research group is now working on scaling its technology up to the high levels needed to achieve medically relevant benefits.

For personalised medicine applications, the ‘lab-on-a-chip’ technology could then be applied to cells obtained from patients through biopsies so doctors can determine which drugs will work on a particular patient.

Depending on funding, Lenhert expects that the technology could be made commercially available after two years of development.