LifeArc joins £20m international project to develop novel cancer treatment for children

LifeArc is investing up to £4.9 million to bolster a joint international project to create new cancer therapies specifically for children.

Developing cancer therapies specifically for children is one of the major challenges in cancer research. An estimated 400,000 children and adolescents worldwide are diagnosed with cancer every year. In countries with high medical standards, such as Germany, around 80 percent of these children can be cured with the therapies currently available. In other countries, the cure rate is 60 percent or less.

The international “PROTECT” project has just been awarded £20M by Cancer Research UK and the National Cancer Institute. LifeArc will be additionally investing up to £4.9m. The project involves LifeArc and nine of the world’s leading cancer research centers from Spain, France, the USA, the Netherlands, the UK and Germany. The team will develop novel cancer therapies that break down cancer-specific proteins in the tumor cells. This new type of therapy is called PROTACs and “molecular glues”, and it hasn’t yet been used in young people.

The team is led by the Hopp Children’s Cancer Center in Heidelberg (KiTZ), the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston and Stanford University in California.

“Unfortunately, standard therapies and new targeted medications for adults do not help a large proportion of children,” says Stefan Pfister, Director at the Hopp Children’s Cancer Center Heidelberg (KiTZ), Head of Department at the German Cancer Research Center (DKFZ) and Paediatric Oncologist at the Heidelberg University Hospital (UKHD). “Cancer in children has other causes, the types of cancer are different and we also see clear differences in tumour biology that cannot simply be transferred from adult oncology to children.”

PROTECT involves research institutes in medicinal chemistry, tumour biology and clinical cancer research coming together to be able to carry out the entire process themselves; from the chemical development of molecular active ingredients to biological validation and preclinical testing on tumour models developed specifically for childhood cancer. In close cooperation with the KiTZ spin-off ITCC-P4 gGmbH, the drugs are to be tested on laboratory models specifically for childhood tumours.

“Theoretically, we can use this process to force the breakdown of every conceivable cancer protein in the tumour cells,” Pfister explains. “This means we can specifically break down tumour proteins that were previously considered untouchable – for example, because their structure makes it impossible to block them with medication. Another advantage is that these drugs can have a positive effect on cellular immunotherapies, which have unfortunately only been successful in a few children so far. Through the targeted protein breakdown, the immune cells that are supposed to attack the tumour cells can be switched on and off and therefore, do not tire so quickly.”

The project is funded by Cancer Research UK, the National Cancer Institute, the Scientific Foundation of the Spanish Association Against Cancer and KiKa (Children Cancer Free Foundation) as part of the Cancer Grand Challenges initiative, which was co-founded by Cancer Research UK and the National Cancer Institute in the US.

In the next five years, the research team will focus on childhood tumours, for which the chances of recovery are comparatively poor. These include, among others, brain tumours, neuroblastomas and bone and soft tissue tumours in children. The scientists have already identified 12 cancer proteins as particularly promising weak points in these tumours and, in some cases, the first chemical substances have already been developed.