Developing new treatments for cancer

15 June 2010

The natural antibodies in our blood are used by the immune system to identify and neutralize foreign objects, such as bacteria and viruses. Unfortunately, they usually don’t recognize cancer.

“Therapeutic antibodies are another matter; they’re designed to recognize special molecules found only on the surface of cancer cells, allowing them to target and kill those cells without harming the healthy ones,” says Jesse Popov, a recent MSFHR Trainee award recipient.

Therapeutic antibodies are a popular and effective class of cancer drugs, particularly when combined with more traditional treatments. This results in a dramatic decrease in the side effects of chemotherapy such as nausea, fatigue and hair loss.

“Therapeutic antibodies sound too good to be true _ and they are in some ways. Part of the problem is that there isn’t enough knowledge about exactly how therapeutic antibodies work. The result is that sometimes these drugs work less effectively in cancer patients than is expected,” says Mr. Popov. “My research is focused on understanding how therapeutic antibodies work, and to use the findings to further improve them.”

Mr. Popov’s research involves combining therapeutic antibodies with liposomes which are tiny particles made from fats that occur naturally in the body.  The combination of therapeutic antibodies and liposomes greatly increases the anti-cancer effect.  The research takes place in vitro—a controlled environment such as a test tube or Petri dish—and provides a direct way of studying the mechanisms of therapeutic antibodies.

“This new pharmaceutical will help us better understand how therapeutic antibodies work, and we will use the information we get to tailor the pharmaceutical so it destroys cancer as best as it can,” says Mr. Popov. “Also, the pharmaceutical can be made with any type of therapeutic antibody which means that it has the potential to be used for treating any type of cancer.”

In 2005, after finishing his undergraduate degree in chemistry at the University of Western Ontario, Mr. Popov enrolled in the unique interdisciplinary oncology program at UBC.

“It was exciting to be involved in a new program which was combined with the prospect to work at the new BC Cancer Research Centre; it was an opportunity I couldn’t pass up.” says Mr. Popov who in 2006 received a Junior Graduate Studentship award from MSFHR.

Working in Dr. Marcel Bally’s lab, Mr. Popov has been able to use his strong chemistry background to collaborate with other researchers and contribute to developing innovative therapies for the treatment of different types of cancer.

Improvements in current cancer therapies translate directly into a higher quality of life for cancer patients.

“The MSFHR award allows me to focus on my research, and the research and travel allowance give me the opportunity to attend conferences to share my work and collaborate with others.” This past fall, Mr. Popov had the opportunity, through a CIHR grant, to spend six months at Utrecht University in the Netherlands where he expanded his knowledge base by studying with researchers in the pharmaceutical sciences.

“In future, I would like to continue my work in cancer research – there is still so much that we need to understand about this disease.”

*Pictured above is Research Trainee Jesse Popov, taken while on a six-month research project at Utrecht University in the Netherlands in 2009.