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Toronto-based team will use new funding to launch clinical trials for promising ultrasound, MRI methodologies for breast cancer treatment

This project has been completed

A research team based out of Toronto’s Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre is on track to begin trials on the use of ultrasound-stimulated microbubbles in breast cancer patients thanks to new funding from the Terry Fox Research Institute (TFRI).

According to Dr. Gregory Czarnota, a radiation oncologist and the project’s principal investigator, the grant will allow the team to see if this promising method – which they believe could enhance the effects of radiation and chemotherapy 60-fold – lives up to expectations.

“We have been doing preclinical trials on the use of ultrasound stimulated microbubbles in animals for years with great results and are now very excited to start our first in human studies,” said Dr. Czarnota, who anticipates the trials will commence in 2019.

The method consists of intravenously injecting tiny bubbles into a tumour’s blood vessels, which are then stimulated using ultrasound. As the bubbles begin to shake, the vessels open, making the tumour increasingly sensitive to radiation or chemotherapy. This means that more cancer cells could be killed off – in a much more targeted way – before a patient receives either treatment.

“We hope to test these methodologies and get us a step closer to introducing new treatments into medical practice to make chemotherapy and radiation therapy, two of the most common cancer treatments, significantly more effective, with fewer side effects,” Dr. Czarnota said.

In addition to developing the first human trials of these chemotherapy- and radiation-enhancing methodologies, the New Frontiers Program Project Grant team will also use TFRI’s $2 million to continue improving the ways in which ultrasound and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) technologies are used to monitor – and potentially predict – the response of breast cancer patients to chemotherapy.

These new technologies will allow oncologists to track whether a patient’s chemotherapy is achieving its intended goal a week after treatment begins. This means that if someone is receiving an ineffective therapy, they can be switched to one that is effective as soon as possible.

“This will allow oncologists to personalize treatments for patients with breast cancer, which will also make treatment more effective,” Dr. Czarnota said.

Statistics show that there is a great need to do this.

In 2017, an estimated 26,500 women in Canada were diagnosed with the disease. Although each of these cases was unique, patients typically received the same treatment: a “one-size-fits-all” chemotherapy course that is not always effective. The inability of this type of treatment to address the particularities of each case resulted in the death of about 5,000 women from breast cancer across the country last year.

Dr. Czarnota and his team hope to reduce this number thanks to the new PPG, their third TFRI award. It will allow them to continue developing and testing different ways in which ultrasound and MRI technologies can improve outcomes for patients with breast cancer.

“Our goal [for this new phase of funding] is to build on past findings to actually begin implementing these novel uses of ultrasound and MRI technologies in clinical trials,” Dr. Czarnota said. “This new TFRI PPG will allow us to do this, not only because of the funding it provides but because it brings together inter-related projects that are highly synergistic, which means that we can bring together research teams with different expertise to collaborate on a single project.”

Previously funded project: Ultrasound and MRI for cancer therapy - I