Nanoparticles that detect early-stage pancreatic cancer


Project: SAVEME

Pancreatic cancer is one of the hardest cancers to detect, making survival rates very low. The EU-funded SaveMe project has engineered nanoparticles that find the cancer using receptors for the tumour cells’ unique biological signal – a step towards early detection.

Many common cancers are now treatable with radiotherapy, chemotherapy and surgery. But the 5-year survival rate of pancreatic cancer is still less than 5%, in part because it is difficult to detect early, according to the World Health Organization. The cancer has few unique early-stage symptoms and none that are easy to spot, while the pancreas’ location deep in the abdomen often hides tumors from conventional imaging.

The SaveMe project has engineered nanoparticles – particles less than 100 000 billionths of a metre across – that could one day improve early detection. The EU-funded project’s team has shown it is possible both to create nanoparticles that can home in on cancer cells in the lab and to track these nanoparticles with standard imaging tools. Research is still at the pre-clinical stage but together, these results could lead to earlier treatment and more precise surgery.

“Early diagnosis of pancreatic cancer has a major positive impact on outcomes,” says SaveMe project coordinator Louis Shenkman from Tel-Aviv University. This is because pancreatic tumors can only be removed successfully by surgery when they are small. At later stages, they spread to essential organs such as the liver and no longer respond to chemotherapy or radiotherapy.

Targeted technology
SaveMe’s nanoparticles work by recognizing the unique chemical signature of pancreatic tumors. The project team built a core nanoparticle, to which they attached molecules attracted to receptor proteins found only on the surface of pancreatic tumors. Shenkman predicts that with this “decorating” manufacturing method, it could be possible to custom-build nanoparticles. Different patients have different receptors and it could be possible to attach tracking molecules tailored to a single patient. And if tumor cells mutate or grow, the nanoparticles could be adjusted to match each new type of tumor, he says.

If the technology reaches the stage of successful patient trials, the diagnostic system developed by SaveMe could also be used for other tumors. It would be especially useful for research into cancers that are currently difficult to diagnose, he adds. The nanoparticles use only biodegradable materials, so would be eliminated from the body after use.
As well as testing a new, personalized approach to detecting cancer, the team used their nanoparticle design to prove that two methods of shutting down pancreatic cancer cells could work in principle. The first method delivers small interfering RNA (siRNA – a version of one of the basic components of genes) into the tumor cells to switch off genes essential to their machinery. The second delivers antibodies to block the enzymes the cells produce for chemical reactions they need in order to function.

These concepts are attractive for researching an alternative to surgery because they would target only tumor cells, wherever they are, leaving the surrounding tissue unharmed. In contrast, surgery for pancreatic cancer is very complex and must be carried out before any tumor cells spread.

Adding to research knowledge
SaveMe’s researchers tested many different methods of making nanoparticles and different surface molecules to find the right nanoparticle composition for pancreatic cancer. In doing so, they created standardised methods of making each of these nanoparticle types that can be used to track and reproduce their results efficiently.

This generated extensive new data on how to synthesise different types of nanoparticles. These data are now available on the project website. Project members have also published over 30 articles on the project’s results in specialist journals and more are in the pipeline.
Computer modelling was another research tool advanced by the project. From existing software and research, the team created programs to predict tumour growth, blood flow and delivery rates of nanoparticles to the tumours. The final programs can apply to other bio-nanoparticles, assisting research in other projects.

Shenkman concludes: “We have developed an interesting platform for treating solid cancer … It is valid for any gene therapy that could use siRNA to deliver therapy into cells.” “EU support for this project helped foster basic research in this field. This was a unique opportunity for different specialties to interact in a very effective manner.”

This innovation was made possible by Israel’s continued participation in the official Horizon 2020 fund, managed in Israel by ISERD part of The Israel Innovation Authority (Formerly the Office of the Chief Scientist and MATIMOP). The initiative has taken Israeli R&D to the next level with the help of ground-breaking collaboration between scientists in Israel and Europe, as well as essential funding and support.

Project details 
Project acronym: SAVEME 
Participants: Israel (Coordinator), Austria, Germany, Italy, Russia, Spain, UK, Belgium, Sweden
Project Reference N° 263307 
Total cost: € 13 809 085 EU contribution: € 10 500 000
Duration: March 2011 – February 2015