It has been recognized for a long time that treatment outcomes for patients with cancer improve when drugs are used in combination. Yet my research into drug combinations formulated as a single product is still considered controversial.

Concepts developed decades ago recognized that two drugs could behave better than expected based on the activity of each drug when used alone - this is known as “synergy”. What was less well recognized was that synergy between drugs is dependent on the ratio of the drugs being used. Some drug-drug ratios were just additive while others were antagonistic (producing even less activity than a single drug), and some drug combinations were synergistic!

I and others at the BC Cancer Agency's Department of Experimental Therapeutics used this information to generate an innovative approach which relied on a “nanoscaled” (100-times smaller than a red blood cell) drug delivery system. Our technology led to the discovery of a drug candidate that is now being tested in patients.

Our research also taught us that when radiation was combined with some drugs—not all drugs—the results were far better than predicted - synergy! Obviously there was an opportunity for us to develop combination treatments with radiation, but my colleagues and I did not have sufficient funding to do any studies considering the use of radiation with our drug delivery systems.

This barrier was overcome with the help of the BC Cancer Foundation. Philanthropic dollars helped us secure important research funding for a key member of Experimental Therapeutics, clinician scientist Dr. Mohamed Khan. Generous donations from B.C. donors also allowed us to acquire the first-in-Western-Canada radiation delivery device suitable for use in preclinical testing. This device can deliver radiation in a manner that is almost identical to how radiation is delivered to patients.

With this new tool in place we are now developing technologies that rely on drug delivery systems, radiation-enhancing drugs and radiation to define improved treatments – treatments that should allow lower dose of radiation to be used, thereby reducing some side effects.

Thanks for reading,
Marcel

Department Head and Distinguished Scientist, Experimental Therapeutics, BC Cancer Research Centre