Prof. Pierre Sonveaux and his team at the UCL Institute of Experimental and Clinical Research (IREC) identified a new molecule that can prevent metastasis. Three years ago, he had confirmed a first molecule via tests on mice. Thus the team has doubled the chance of finding a treatment that prevents metastasis.
Metastasis are responsible for 90% of cancer deaths. That sombre statistic drove Prof. Sonveaux to work toward developing new anti-metastatic treatments. Each day, his team tries to gain a firmer grasp of tumour metabolism: the mechanisms that enable cancer cells to produce the energy and molecular building blocks they need to survive and proliferate. In three years, Prof. Sonveaux has identified two molecules that prevent the spread of cancer in mice.
Metastasis: the heart of the study
Cancer begins with the development of cancer cells. When the cells multiply, a tumour appears. The more the cells multiply, the more the tumour grows. At an advanced stage of the disease, some cells can escape the tumour and colonise other organs. These ‘secondary’ cancers are called metastases and are at the heart of Prof. Sonveaux’s work.
Altered mitochondria: point of departure
At the start of his research, Prof. Sonveaux compared a tumour cell capable of metastasis to one that was not. More specifically, he focused on mitochondria, ‘the power plants that allow the cell to produce energy from oxygen and sugar’, he explains. He noticed immediately that the functioning of tumour cell mitochondria was altered, because they promoted cell migration and metastasis. The cause of the alteration: overproduction of an agent called ‘superoxide’.
2014: MitoQ, a world first
Based on this observation, the research team searched for molecules that could inactivate the superoxide. In 2014, after numerous tests on mice carrying human cancers, Prof. Sonveaux and his team identified a first molecule: MitoQ. ‘At the time, there was no specific strategy for preventing the spread of cancer’, he says. ‘It was a world first.’ The molecule had been created by other researchers for other applications.
2017: ‘We double the chances of finding a treatment’
Three years later, on 4 December 2017, Prof. Sonveaux’s team announced the identification of a second molecule capable of inactivating the superoxide: catechin:lysine 1:2, which comes from a plant native to Indonesia. ‘This molecule, conceived of originally by Dr Paul Niebes, acts in the same way as the first’, Prof. Sonveaux explains. ‘It’s a second candidate for creating a potential drug. So we doubled our chances of finding a treatment.’ The two molecules are extremely precise and can move towards cells capable of metastasising. ‘They’re a bit like homing devices that accumulate not just in the cancer cells but in the right place within them.’
A big step in the fight against cancer
Today, Prof. Sonveaux can confirm that, at least in the experimental domain, it is possible to prevent cancer from spreading in mice, using two different molecules. It’s an important step in the fight against cancer. But it’s just the beginning of a long-term endeavour. ‘Now we’ll continue our research in mice’, he says. ‘We’ll determine on what types of cancer each molecule acts. Then we’ll combine the administration of each of these molecules with standard cancer treatments, such as chemotherapy. We’ll thus be able to assess side effects and test the compatibility of these treatments.’
Clinical trials: when?
For the moment, the results, while thrilling, concern only certain tumours grafted into mice. When will human trials be possible? ‘Of course, that’s hard to predict. But if a molecule proves effective, we’ll certainly consider clinical trials. It hasn’t happened yet.’ Whatever the future of the two molecules, Prof. Sonveaux’s research has already proven that preventing metastasis is an attainable goal.
Prof. Pierre Sonveaux’s research on catechin:lysine 1:2 has been financed mainly by Télévie, a pharmaceutical conglomerate (VALORE and BePharBel) and the F.R.S.-FNRS.
A glance at Pierre Sonveaux's bio
Pierre Sonveaux is professor of pharmacology and F.R.S.-FNRS Senior Research Associate at the Pharmacology Centre of the UCL Health Sciences Sector. After studying pharmacology, he completed a postdoctorate at the University of North Carolina. Currently, he is director of the UCL Tumour Metabolism Research Group. He is the author of more than 90 scientific publications in international journals and winner of major scientific prizes such as the biennial Belgian Society of Pharmaceutical Sciences Prize, the Prix Galien de Pharmacologie, a ‘Highly Commended Award’ of the European Association for Cancer Research (EACR) and the AstraZeneca Foundation Oncology Prize. His research has also been recognised several times by the Belgian Royal Academy of Medicine. He is an Officer of the Walloon Order of Merit.