Where Ideas grow

i3S at the forefront of the fight against cancer

Within the scope of support for scientific infrastructures and research projects, recently approved by the Northern Regional Coordination and Development Commission (CCDR-N), i3S will be starting two projects in the area of cancer that will allow a faster and more personalized response to the cancer patient and identify the molecular mechanisms that cause resistance to therapy.

With financial support from NORTE 2020 of 15 million euros, the research project “TeamUp4Cancer” will be carried out over the next two years in the North of Portugal by the Porto Comprehensive Cancer Center (P.CCC), a consortium of the Portuguese Institute of Oncology of Porto (IPO Porto) and the i3S. The “Cancer Therapy” project, financed by NORTE 2020 with 500 thousand euros, will also be implemented under the P.CCC with the aim of understanding the resistance to cancer therapy and discovering new treatment solutions. The total investment in this center, the only one in the country, will be 17 million euros. “TeamUp4Cancer” aims to shorten the cycle of scientific discovery in cancer and bring basic research and clinical practice closer through the application of cutting-edge technology and exploration of early-stage clinical trials - searching for concrete benefits for the cancer patient and the quicker development of new therapeutic weapons against cancer. The partners aim to develop experimental models in vitro to assist in the treatment of the patient, to validate and explore new biomarkers in tumor tissues, blood, and other tissue samples, and to accelerate pre-clinical studies, facilitating the transition to early-stage clinical studies.

“As part of the implementation of the project, it is expected that a total of 200 to 300 cancer patients, with different types of cancer, will be annually eligible for molecular pre-screening. According to the literature and the experience we have accumulated, we hope that 10-20% of them can benefit from inclusion in early-stage clinical trials”, explains Rui Henrique, coordinator of the consortium and President of IPO Porto, adding that the same screening will be useful for an even greater number of patients potentially eligible for more advanced clinical trials.

The main investment of this project will focus on the acquisition of state-of-the-art equipment, the hiring of highly qualified human resources, and the adaptation of clinical and laboratory infrastructure to support the conduct of early-stage clinical trials. The program also plans to increase the number of start-ups and spin-offs, contributing to the dissemination of technology and return on investment, especially in the North of Portugal. “The implementation of new equipment and infrastructures within the scope of the P.CCC will create new opportunities to carry out cutting-edge cancer research with the aim of better understanding the biological bases of this disease, transferring this knowledge to new cancer screening and early diagnosis tools, and developing new therapies - as well as new strategies for monitoring and treating patients”, stresses Claudio Sunkel, director of i3S. “It is the first time in Portugal that we will be able to fulfill the whole cycle that goes from the identification of the altered mechanisms in the tumor cells to the clinical trials based on the deep knowledge of the molecular and cellular processes underlying the disease”, underlines Raquel Seruca, coordinator of the application to the funds of NORTE 2020 by the i3S.

Some of the equipment that will be purchased, explains Raquel Seruca, “will be at IPO Porto, namely for Phase 1 clinical trials, and others at i3S, mainly those that will allow the isolation and characterization of patients’ tumor cells and also the study of behavior of these cells in animal models”.

“The added value of this partnership is having the ability to cover the entire spectrum of discovery and innovation, from the basic, translational, preclinical and clinical phases and demonstrate how the synergies that already exist are reinforced by this multi-institutional and -disciplinary vision”, stresses Rui Henrique.

“This is a unique opportunity to do science with a clinical impact on cancer patients. We now have all the scientific, clinical, and technological conditions to advance and improve the precision of medicine and contribute to the great European objective of the Cancer Mission for the next decade: By 2030 more than three million lives saved, living more and better”, says Claudio Sunkel.

Understanding resistance to therapies
The “Cancer Therapy” project is led by i3S researcher Celso Reis and is based on three lines of research on themes that “have never been studied in a systematic and integrated way” to understand the resistance to cancer therapy: Role of regulation of RNA in resistance to cancer therapy (RNA_CARE); Characterization and function of proteins as therapeutic targets (PROTEIN_TARGET); and Chromosomal instability in tumor heterogeneity and therapeutic response (CIN_TARGET).

This project, through synergies between the different participating research groups, represents “an opportunity to solidify knowledge, experience, and unique human resources”, underlines Celso Reis. “It is a multidisciplinary program that brings together diverse areas from molecular and cellular biology, molecular pathology, pharmacology, bioinformatics, and nanomedicine with a single objective: to understand resistance to cancer therapy and to find new therapeutic solutions”.

The work carried out by the research teams that are part of the project shows that the therapeutic resistance of cancer is a complex process, resulting from altered genetic and epigenetic mechanisms that confer great capacity for adaptation to tumor cells. “We will start from relevant data from the three lines of research that make up the project to better characterize the role of each of them in resistance to cancer therapy, studying them in the tumor types where they are most relevant and seeking to identify new therapeutic targets and new strategies of treatment and monitoring of cancer patients”, says the researcher.