Inside iThemba LABS' research quest for better cancer diagnostics & therapies

Scientists at iThemba LABS in Cape Town are applying their knowledge in nuclear medicine to improve cancer treatment while preserving as much healthy tissue as possible.

Scientists at iThemba LABS are aiming to develop more targeted cancer diagnostics and therapies. Picture: Kevin Brandt/Eyewitness News

CAPE TOWN - Scientists in South Africa, at the forefront of cutting-edge research, said that they were aiming to develop more targeted cancer diagnostics and therapies.

At the scientific research facility, iThemba LABS in Cape Town, these experts are applying their knowledge in nuclear medicine to improve cancer treatment, while preserving as much healthy tissue as possible.

The World Health Organization (WHO) said that cancer was one of the leading causes of death globally, accounting for nearly 10 million fatalities last year.

In South Africa, more than 56,800 people lost their lives to the disease last year.

Postdoctoral research fellow, specialising in Radiation Biophysics, Doctor Julie Bolcaen, explained their studies in finding more effective treatments for glioblastoma, a very common type of brain tumour in adults.

'Now that we're moving towards the theranostics, towards the therapeutic radiopharmaceuticals... during my time here at iThemba LABS, we did more research in that field, so we started looking at what if we want to develop a radiopharmaceutical to treat glioblastoma, what are the major requirements of that radiopharmaceutical, like what will be a good target, what is important radiochemistry-wise, what can we expect for toxicity?”

Radiopharmaceuticals are molecules with radioactive properties used in medications that doctors use to diagnose and treat cancer.

Bolcaen said that they also conducted pre-clinical research on cancer cells to assess the efficacy of different radiation sources, compared to the standard radiotherapy that was currently being used in hospitals.

"Specifically, me and [Dr] Shankari [Nair] we specialise in nuclear medicine. Shankari is a radiochemist, so she is able to radio-label compounds and then what we do in the lab is, we test new radiopharmaceuticals on cancer cells with the aim to image cancer but secondly also to treat the cancer.”

The early detection of cancers, particularly cervical cancer, is another key focus area of the research as postdoctoral fellow, Dr Shankari Nair, explained: "We’ve developed a molecule that we think will bind to the receptor. We have biological evidence that this molecule will bind to the receptor, so we are now doing a diagnostic radioisotope, hopefully, as we go along you can put a therapeutic radioisotope then you have dual therapy to get to the receptor for detection so it can combine therapy and imaging together, and that’s my side of the radiopharmaceuticals, but I mainly deal with the making of it.”

iThemba LABS Managing Director, Dr Faïcal Azaïez, said that as part of the South African Isotope Facility, production of these radiopharmaceuticals would be expanded for both local and international use.

"In the international scene, we are one of the four biggest producers next to USA, Europe and Asia, so you see we are using our capacity, our knowledge in order to increase our impact on the medical sector. This is a source of forex to the country because all that we’re producing is exported and this adds value to the economy.”

A developing project at iThemba LABS is the South African Isotope Facility, which will expand the centre’s capacity to produce more of these radioisotopes used to diagnose and treat cancer.

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