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Researcher offers new help in fighting world’s deadliest disease

It is estimated that approximately 7.6 million people died from cancer in the year 2008, accounting for 13 percent of all human deaths that year. Cancer, the world's current leading cause of death, is also the most expensive. According to a report from the American Cancer Society and Livestrong, the total economic impact of premature death and disability from cancer worldwide - not including direct medical costs - was $895 billion in 2008 or 1.5 percent of the global GDP.

Inventor Blanka Rihova's work has been instrumental in developing new, more effective cancer treatments. For her extensive work in this area, she has been nominated in the Lifetime achievement category for the 2011 European Inventor of the Year Award. The award will be presented on 19 May at a ceremony in Budapest.

The Czech inventor is being honoured for her work in striving to create a more targeted cancer treatment with positive results. Her research has enabled the development of several cancer drugs with specific anti-tumour targeting mechanisms. She has also been researching a particular method of treatment that not only targets tumour cells but even appears to increase immune function.

Chemotherapy: an effective treatment

Chemotherapy has for some time been considered the most effective treatment to combat cancer.

The roots of chemotherapy can be traced back to "The Air Raid on Bari" in Italy on 2 December 1943. During this World War II air raid, German bombers destroyed a ship containing large amounts of nitrogen mustard (mustard gas), exposing hundreds of people to the chemical warfare agent.

After the raid, autopsies of victims revealed that the proliferation of lymphoid cells had been dramatically suppressed. Scientists wondered if the same compound would similarly suppress the proliferation of tumour cells. Experiments were later conducted injecting nitrogen mustard into the tumours located in the lymph nodes of mice. Temporary remission of cancerous cells in the mice became the seed of chemotherapy.

In 1958, the first successful chemotherapy treatment was completed. Since then, more than 50 different kinds of chemotherapy have been developed.

Finding a more targeted solution

Although chemotherapy has come a long way since the 1940s, the therapy still causes many of the adverse side effects of its ancestors. Physical effects include hair loss and intense nausea causing a severe loss of appetite. This can lead to cachexia, also known as wasting syndrome, the symptoms of which include weight loss, fatigue and loss of muscle mass.

These physical maladies are the result of the non-specific nature of chemotherapy. The cytotoxic compounds do not reach tumour cells exclusively. It has a particularly detrimental effect to those cells which rapidly divide, including cells of the hair follicles, immune and reproductive systems as well as those that line the digestive tract.

Rihova is working toward a more targeted solution that would avoid the negative side effects of chemotherapy. The drug she is working to develop falls under the category of a polymeric macromolecular prodrug.  These macromolecules typically involve a large "backbone" to which a cytotoxic anti-cancer drug is attached - in this case, a drug called doxorubicin. The backbones are also coupled with antibodies that "recognise" tumour cells. The presence of the antibody is what causes the drug to "target" tumour cells and successfully spare other somatic cells - giving them their characteristic specificity.

Once the molecular compound enters a tumour cell, it is able to stop its DNA replication, thereby preventing the tumour from growing. The antibody that binds to the tumour cell then "marks" that cell and induces an immune response to destroy the tumour cell.

The combination of its increased specificity and efficacy along with its ability to enhance the immune system's response to the tumour cells themselves reduce the chances of new tumours developing later on. Additionally, the mitigation of toxic side effects has the potential to reduce the frequency and length of patients' hospital stays, easing financial stressors in an already mentally and emotionally taxing time.

Demand for this type of drug will continue to increase in coming years as the number of cancer-caused deaths is predicted to rise to over 11 million by the year 2030.