AL AIN // Chemotherapy could one day be a treatment of the past if a project linking cancer growth and the body's own immune system proves successful.
The Dh250,000 study, which is looking at fighting cancer growth by manipulating the cells inside tumours, is nearly complete.
Launched in 2010, researchers at UAE University have been studying the link between the immune system and cancer, particularly the role of these cells within tumours.
Similar studies are under way elsewhere. Last week, researchers at Yale University in the United States managed to eradicate 70 per cent of melanoma tumours, one of the most lethal forms of skin cancer, by exposing them to a fast-acting virus.
The cells being studied at UAEU are called macrophages.
"We wanted to study their function in how they are recruited by the growing tumour to live inside these tumour cells to protect it from the host immune system," said Dr Basel Al Ramadi, a professor and chairman of microbiology and immunology at the university's faculty of medicine and health sciences.
The tumour hijacks a part of the immune system for its own good by recruiting cells into its micro-environment and turning them into suppressive cells.
"They secrete factors which make the micro-environment not immutable to cells," Dr Al Ramadi said. "That's how tumours grow without any interference by the immune system."
Since these cells are key to protecting the tumour, the scientists have focused on studying how they might manipulate them to their advantage, by changing them from tumour-promoting cells to ones that would attack it.
"The way we approached it was by injecting an agent that would modulate or change the behaviour of these cells and make them less suppressive and more anti-tumour," Dr Al Ramadi said.
A vaccine strain of salmonella typhimurium bacteria - which by itself do not cause disease - was used.
"Salmonella bacteria don't like to live in a lot of oxygen, they like hypoxic conditions and tissues that have low levels of oxygen, so tumours are perfect for that," Dr Al Ramadi said. "The bacteria cells' normal target to live inside the host are these macrophages, so they live within those cells and change them in a way."
By transforming the cells, scientists found the tumour shrank and, although they did not cure the cancer, they were able to increase survival rates.
"The success of tumours always occurs at the expense of a functioning immune system," Dr Al Ramadi said. "But this can prove stronger than chemotherapy and less toxic."
Another Dh100,000 research project was launched last year to find the link between obesity and cancer. After inducing mice to double their weight, it was found that obesity did in fact promote cancer growth.
"We're now investigating why it promotes it," Dr Al Ramadi said. "Some evidence [from other organisations] shows that it depends on the cancer."
"Whatever we learn might not lead to the next big medicine but what will help is accumulating enough evidence that would lead us to that medicine," Dr Al Ramadi said. "But it would help to have a national foundation for this kind of work because it would make it work faster."
The next step will be to translate the animal work to humans.
"It takes time to find out if there are any side effects," Dr Al Ramadi said. "The kind of research we do is on the cutting edge of knowledge and what we're trying to contribute in our small way is another piece of the puzzle."