Laura Soucek receives EIT award

‘Universal’ cancer therapy voted public’s favourite innovation at EIT Awards

Image credit: European Institute of Innovation and Technology

A project to develop a ‘universal’ protein-based cancer therapy – which enters clinical trials in 2020 – has been awarded the European Institute of Innovation and Technology (EIT) Public Award.

The award was voted on by members of the public and presented at a ceremony at the INNOVEIT forum, hosted by the EIT in Budapest, Hungary.

Professor Laura Soucek, a cancer researcher at Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona and CEO of Peptomyc (which has been supported by EIT Health), first learnt about the protein Myc as a student. She thought that Myc – which is central to the functioning of cancer cells, allowing them to divide continuously and acquire resistance to treatment – would be an ideal target for cancer therapy. However, senior academics told her that her proposed strategy was impossible.

“When I was a student I didn’t believe Myc was undruggable and set out to prove that it was,” Soucek told E&T. “Myc is considered an undruggable target even now, but we are about to change this dogma completely.”

Soucek led a years-long effort to design an inhibitor based on peptides – short chains of proteins – which was capable of finding, entering and attacking cancer cells. While peptides are used as therapeutics in other fields of medicine, they have not yet been widely adopted in oncology.

The inhibitor was modelled into a shape which perfectly complements Myc. After being injected into the bloodstream and reaching the nucleus of a cancer cell, it can confine and trap Myc, rendering it inactive. While inhibiting Myc in cancer cells – in which Myc is continually expressed – causes cell death, the same behaviour causes no damage to normal tissue cells.

“The beauty of this is that finally we can offer cancer patients therapy that is not toxic,” Soucek said. “I know too many patients that decide not to undergo treatment because of fear of side effects. We can finally offer them something better.”

In addition to offering a cancer therapy without the toxic and traumatic side effects associated with chemotherapy and radiotherapy, Soucek’s Myc inhibitor also tackles a major resistance mechanism in cancer associated with Myc, which often causes standard treatments to fail. This opens up the possibility to use it in combination with other treatments and reduce the chance of failure.

Soucek’s proposed treatment also has the benefit of being applicable to all types of cancer, including distributed cancers: “This is the opposite of personalised medicine; this is universal medicine,” Soucek told E&T.

The treatment has been demonstrated to work effectively in mouse models, including mice carrying different types of human tumour. Soucek and her colleagues are on track to treat the first human patients with the Myc inhibitor at the beginning of 2020.

“Twenty years of effort, proving dogmas wrong and fighting scepticism are finally getting to an end,” she said. “It’s the moment of truth, it’s exciting and terrifying at the same time because this works beautifully [in mouse models] but the moment of truth is in humans.”

Other EIT Awards – which were not voted on by the public – were awarded to Simone Accornero for development of software to automate energy data processing and exchanges, Ioannis Tamanas for leading the development of one of the first Alzheimer’s disease prediction services, Bieke Van Gorp for creation of an app which helps detect atrial fibrillation, and Isabel Hoffman, for leading a company which has developed a portable sensor to test the quality of fish.

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