Chemotherapy is vital in the treatment of mesothelioma. However, it often results in side effects, such as low blood cell counts, thinned or brittle hair, loss of appetite or weight, diarrhea, nausea and vomiting, that can be difficult for patients to manage and can sometimes outweigh the benefits of the treatment. Now, researchers report they have developed a technique for delivering medications that are “free of side effects.”
Researchers from the University of Virginia School of Medicine report that drugs are designed to target an offending molecule, that which makes a person sick, by completely blocking its access to a cell. By doing so, however, any good that the molecule may offer is also stifled. The team, led by J. Julius Zhu, professor of pharmacology at UVA, determined that molecules have different functions throughout a cell, and they were able to develop a targeted delivery method for drugs that can home in on a specific location of a cell while avoiding those locations that could lead to side effects, according to a July 5 press release from the University.
“The problem with side effects is caused because you just could not distinguish the molecules doing different things in the same cell,” Zhu said. “If you blocked a molecule, you blocked it regardless of what it was doing. And that usually has unwanted side effects.”
Treatment for mesothelioma, a rare, aggressive form of cancer caused by exposure to airborne asbestos fibers is complex and, depending on the stage of the disease, typically involves a multi-modal approach including surgery, radiation and chemotherapy. While these treatment options are among the keys to improve the chances of the battling the disease, they can come with pain and sometimes debilitating side effects leading to a poor quality of life. Patients often need to discontinue their mesothelioma treatments that are killing off the cancer cells because the side effects are nearly worse than the disease.
According to Zhu, the concept behind this targeted approach was “simple,” but the execution of it took many years. The new drugs, he says, will be especially useful for cancers, and “adds a new level of precision to the concept of precision medicine – medicine tailored exactly to a patient’s needs.” Precision medicine has the best chance of helping a mesothelioma patient achieve extended survival.
The technique will also speed up the development of new treatments by letting researchers more quickly understand what molecules are doing and which should be targeted, according to the press release.
Finding a way to safely deliver toxic chemotherapy and other anti-cancer drugs to mesothelioma patients is critically important to allow patients to continue to receive treatments without having other aspects of their health compromised from dangerous side effects.
Nearly 3,000 Americans are diagnosed with mesothelioma each year.
Read the full study in the May 16 issue of the journal Neuron.