A collaboration between the University of Pretoria and the European Commission makes a decisive difference in the fight against cancer

Posted on January 27, 2023

A cross-continental research partnership that has already successfully treated hundreds of South African prostate cancer patients has now also set its sights on tackling other prevalent cancers, including breast cancer.

“We are on a journey to make a decisive difference in defeating cancer,” said Professor Tawana Kupe, University of Pretoria Vice-Chancellor and Principal, at a gathering on 26 January 2023 of stakeholders involved in the nuclear medicine research collaboration between the University, Steve Biko Academic Hospital and the Joint Research Centre of the European Union Commission.

Picking up on Prof Kupe’s comment, Stella Kyriakides, EU Commissioner for Health and Food Safety, said the phrase had struck a chord with her. “We are on a journey to make a difference,” she emphasised, adding that the fight against cancer is a global challenge calling for a global response.

Commissioner Kyriakides, who is leading a delegation to South Africa, said that if the COVID-19 pandemic had taught humankind anything, it was the importance of collaboration, solidarity and research and innovation. “We are stronger when we work together in order to move forward.”

This particular research collaboration with the University of Pretoria began in January 2017 and uses targeted alpha therapy (TAT), a novel nuclear medicine therapy that targets cancer cells with precision, without harming the surrounding tissue.

Since the collaboration started, more than 300 South African patients with prostate cancer have been treated successfully, said Professor Alfred Morgenstern of the EU Commission’s Joint Research Centre.

World’s first controlled clinical study site evaluating TAT in prostate cancer patients

The collaboration is now running the first phase of clinical trials into the efficacy and safety of the treatment, involving UP, Steve Biko Academic Hospital, the European Commission's Joint Research Centre, St Vincent’s Hospital in Sydney with sponsorship by Novartis, a global healthcare company based in Switzerland.

This is a “world-first study”, with 53 cancer patients participating, according to Prof Morgenstern. Future plans for the collaboration include developing treatment strategies and pharmaceutical interventions for other cancers, such as breast cancer.

From left: Professor Mike Sathekge: Head of Nuclear Medicine Department at the University of Pretoria and Steve Biko Academic Hospital, President & CEO: Nuclear Medicine Research Infrastructure (NuMeRI), Dr Mathabo Mathebula, CEO Steve Biko Academic Hospital (in brown skirt), Commissioner Stella Kyriakides: EU Commissioner for Health and Food Safety (in light suit) and Dr Sibongiseni Dhlomo, Deputy Minister of Health, Prof Tawana Kupe, Vice-Chancellor and Principal of the University of Pretoria.

Touching on the potential toxicities of TAT, Professor Mike Sathekge, head of the Nuclear Medicine Department at UP, said that while there are still side effects, these can be tolerated and while significantly improving the overall survival.

“We are really getting excellent results,” he said, adding that targeted radionuclide therapy should be one of the pillars of cancer treatment because of the results it produces.

Some of the patients treated had been admitted for treatment when their cancers were advanced and aggressive, and have done significantly better with the targeted alpha therapy than with chemotherapy or hormone therapy, as demonstrated by a study recently published in the Journal of Nuclear Medicine.

Effective cancer imaging is essential for effective cancer treatment

Prof Sathekge and other speakers made it clear that imaging is critical to ensure accurate management decisions and optimal outcomes. As Commissioner Kyriakides put it, “You can only treat what you can see.”

This explains the importance of state-of-the-art imaging technology, particularly nuclear imaging, which can “see” cancer cells in great detail and very early. TAT can then be effectively targeted.

Steve Biko Academic Hospital already has advanced nuclear imaging equipment, thanks to the South African national Department of Health. This capacity is set to be increased when the new Nuclear Medicine Research Infrastructure (NuMeRI) Centre is completed and officially opened later this year.

The NuMeRI facility is being funded by the national Department of Science and Innovation and is one of the flagship projects of the South African Research Infrastructure. A further R225 million has been earmarked for the project, according to the department’s Director-General, Phil Mjwara. He explained that the facility would be a distributed network with three nodes: the main centre at Steve Biko Academic Hospital, a node for infection imaging at Tygerberg in Cape Town and a pre-clinical imaging node at the South African Nuclear Energy Commission’s Pelindaba facility.

Dr Sibongiseni Dhlomo, Deputy Minister for Health, congratulated UP and Steve Biko Academic Hospital on the “milestone” they were reaching with the NuMeRI facility and highlighted the importance of good research for government. These sentiments were also echoed by Dr Mathabo Mathebula, CEO of Steve Biko Academic Hospital.

“The policies we make in government must be influenced by research,” Dr Dhlomo said, noting that UP is a “world-known leader”.

“While nuclear medicine is not spoken about much, it is playing an increasingly important role in treatment,” he said.

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