Tumour-blasting ‘smart bomb’ could be on trial in two years

A “SMART bomb” with the potential to destroy solid cancers of all kinds could be tested on patients within two years.

The drug, derived from the autumn crocus, is designed to “detonate” and become active only after reaching a target tumour.

It can circulate in the bloodstream, wiping out cancers that have spread while leaving healthy tissue unharmed.

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Scientists believe the compound, currently known by the code-name ICT2588, should be effective against all forms of solid tumour.

In the laboratory it was successfully used to treat breast, bowel, lung and prostate cancers in mice.

Half the animals appeared to be completely cured after just one injection of the drug, and tumour growth was slowed in every mouse tested.

The key to the drug is the way it is activated by an enzyme tumours use to invade surrounding tissue. Once active, it destroys blood vessels feeding the tumour and causes the cancer to starve to death.

Professor Laurence Patterson, who heads the research team at the University of Bradford, said: “What we’ve designed is, effectively, a ‘smart bomb’ that can be targeted directly at any solid tumour to kill it without appearing to harm healthy tissue.”

Talks are now taking place with an unnamed funder to raise the £3 million needed to bring the drug to trial.

Patients at St James’s University Hospital, Leeds, could be the first to try the treatment, possibly in the next 18 to 24 months.

The drug, known as a vascular disrupting agent (VDA), is based on colchicine – a highly toxic substance in the flowers, leaves and seeds of the autumn crocus. Extracts from the plant have been used as a herbal medicine and poison dating back to ancient Egypt and Greece.

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Most commonly, colchicine has been used to treat gout. Previous attempts to employ it to fight cancer have failed because of the compound’s extreme toxicity.

The new drug belongs to the same medicine family as Paclitaxel, the most widely used chemotherapy agent in the world, which is derived from the bark of the Pacific yew tree.

Prof Patterson’s team found a way of rendering the drug harmless until it was exposed to a protein only found in tumours. The protease enzyme, MMP1, is used by the tumour to “dig” a path through surrounding tissue, allowing it to expand and develop new blood vessels.

“Our novel delivery method uses the presence of this active MMP to activate the drug, which attacks and breaks down cancer blood vessels, destroying the tumour’s lifeline”, said Prof Patterson, who will outline the research at the British Science Festival this week.