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Molecular medicine to individualise the treatment of metastatic cancer

UCAM has created Spain's first chair in this discipline, directed by Dr Fernando Vidal Vanaclocha, who describes the work he is carrying out in this interview.

Dr Vidal Vanaclocha in a laboratory of the UCAM HiTech incubator.
Dr Vidal Vanaclocha in a laboratory of the UCAM HiTech incubator.

One of every four patients with cancer dies due to metastasis. Unfortunately there is still no way of knowing with certainty which tumours cause it nor which treatments can prevent or slow it down. In order to address this situation, which takes so many lives every year, UCAM has created the International Chair in Molecular and Precision Medicine, directed by Dr Fernando Vidal Vanaclocha, professor of Molecular Medicine, Director of Research at the Office of International Medicine at George Washington University, and founder and scientific director of several medical biotechnology companies in Spain and the US.   

His lines of research focus on the molecular diagnosis of cancer and the development of innovative treatments that block some of the molecules involved in the expansion of metastasis. Currently, the Chair studies colorectal and breast cancer, the former being the most frequent cancer in our country, with more than 41,000 new cases each year. The latter, with more than 35,000 new cases per year, is more frequent than colorectal and lung cancer in Spanish women.  

UCAM is contributing to the development of precision medicine  

- What is molecular medicine applied to cancer?   

When cancer appears in a vital area, for example, inside the cranium, the patient may die from that initial tumour. However, if, for example, cancer appears in the chest or the walls of the large bowel, and the patient dies, it is usually not because of the tumour, but because of metastasis. The word metastasis comes from ‘meta’, meaning beyond, and ‘stasis’, development. Metastatic cancer has been known for two centuries now, but we have not been able to cure it yet. Molecular medicine focuses on identifying the molecular patterns of cancers that will metastasise in order to treat them using blockers of the very molecules that help us distinguish them.   

- What solutions does the team you lead provide?   

Our researchers at UCAM HiTech identify colon cancers that will metastasise, which has important consequences for the therapeutic approach and patient monitoring. These studies were conducted in collaboration with the Santa Lucía Hospital in Cartagena, which has allowed us to look at more than 200 cases of colorectal cancer, in which we have already identified pro-metastatic molecules that alert us whether or not patients will develop metastasis, even in very early tumours. This way, if a person has a very early colorectal cancer, and we know that it will metastasise, after removing it, we will have to give them a more aggressive treatment and increase the periodicity of the patient's monitoring. Like this, as soon as a metastasis appears, we can treat it more effectively.   

The studies related to colon cancer are carried out in collaboration with the Santa Lucía Hospital in Cartagena. 

- What progress are you making in breast cancer?    

Genes expressed by breast cancer often deactivate the patient's anti-tumour defences through 'immunosuppression' - a suppression of the immune response. One of the hopes for a cure is to reinvigorate the defences deactivated by the tumours themselves, a process called immunotherapy. Through it, we override the blockers of the defence system that the cancer has activated. As a result, over 20% of advanced cancer patients treated with immunotherapy are being cured. What we do in our team is to look for the combination of genes in breast cancers that generate the patient's immunosuppression so that we know who to give immunotherapy to.