A smart gel that attacks cancer

A new injectable biogel helps destroy cancer tumours in vitro

December 7, 2015
Sophie Lerouge, researcher at CRCHUM and professor in the Department of Mechanical Engineering at ÉTS, and Réjean Lapointe,
researcher at CRCHUM.
A new injectable biogel is proving effective in delivering anti-cancer agents directly into cancer tumours and killing them. This technology developed by researchers at Centre de recherche du Centre hospitalier de l’Université de Montréal (CRCHUM) has been tested with success in a laboratory. If it works in patients, this therapeutic gel may one day revolutionize treatment of many forms of cancer.

Unlike Jell-o, this biogel is liquid at room temperature. It gels at 37 degrees Celsius, which is normal human body temperature. “The strength of this biogel is its compatibility with anti-cancer immune cells. The gel can be used to encapsulate antibody cells for delivery by syringe or catheter into the tumour or next to it. Instead of injecting these anti-cancer cells or anti-cancer drugs throughout the body using the bloodstream, we can treat cancer locally. We hope that this targeted approach will enhance current immunotherapy treatment,” states Réjean Lapointe, researcher at CRCHUM and co-author of a study recently published in Biomaterials.

One form of immunotherapy – known as adoptive cell therapy – involves treating cancer patients with anti-cancer immune cells. These T cells, as they are called, are produced naturally by the body and are able to destroy cancer cells. Generally, however, they are too weak or too few in number to eradicate cancer on their own. Consequently, T cells – often the patient’s own – must be cultivated in a laboratory and reinjected into the patient’s blood. Immunotherapy has produced promising results in treating cases of advanced cancer. Unfortunately, it is not always possible to generate enough T cells. In addition, high doses of interleukin 2, a hormone used to enhance treatment efficacy, have a toxic effect. “Thanks to our therapy, only tens of millions of T cells are required for treatment, instead of the billions now needed. We can also administer compounds that prompt, so to speak, the immune system to fight cancer,” adds Réjean Lapointe in a hopeful tone.

The recipe for this promising biogel was developed by Sophie Lerouge, a researcher at the CRCHUM and professor in the Department of Mechanical Engineering at École de technologie supérieure. “The compound is made from chitosan, a biodegradable material extracted from the shells of crustaceans, to which gelling agents are added. The formulation is liquid at room temperature, making it easy to inject, but quickly takes on a cohesive and resistant structure at 37 degrees. Also, we needed a hydrogel that was non-toxic and that enabled the encapsulated cells to survive and grow,” says Sophie Lerouge. This was a real challenge for her team, who tested several formulations before deciding on this smart biogel.

The biogel has successfully been tested in several in vitro models, including melanoma and kidney cancer. “The T cells in the gel are functional and can grow for two to three weeks, be released from the gel, and kill the cancer cells,” says Lapointe. The next step is to demonstrate the effectiveness of the biogel in animals and humans. If the trials are successful, this new approach could be added to current cancer therapies in a few years.

About the study

The study, titled “Chitosan thermogels for local expansion and delivery of tumor-specific T lymphocytes towards enhanced cancer immunotherapies,” was published online in the journal Biomaterials in October 2015. Sophie Lerouge is funded by the National Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC) and the Canada Research Chair in Biomaterials and Endovascular Implants. Réjean Lapointe is funded by the Canadian Cancer Society Research Institute, the Kidney Foundation of Canada, the ThéCell cell-therapy network at Fonds de recherche du Québec – Santé (FRQS). His laboratory is located at Institut du cancer de Montréal (the Montreal Cancer Institute) at CRCHUM. The other authors of the study are Anne Monette, Caroline Ceccaldi, and Elias Assaad. A patent application has been submitted for the biogel described in this study by Aligo Innovation, a firm specializing in commercializing university research.

To find out more about the study

Video of the biogel


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