Amrita develops new nano-medicine for drug-resistant blood cancer

Centre also invents polymer wafer for preventing recurrence of brain tumours

For millions of Indians battling leukemia (blood cancer), it could rekindle their hope and determination to conquer the life-sapping disease.

Kochi-based Amrita Centre for Nanosciences & Molecular Medicine has developed a new nano-medicine that can dramatically improve the treatment of drug-resistant Chronic Myelogenous Leukemia (CML), when used in combination with Imatinib, the standard drug for the crippling disease.

In another significant invention, the 2006-founded Amrita Centre has devised a mechanism that can effectively prevent recurrence of Glioma, or brain tumour — a deadly disease that affects about four out of every 100,000 people in India. The life expectancy of high-grade glioma patients is about one to two years.

The two projects will be formally unveiled on September 26 at Amritavarsham60: the 60th Birthday Celebrations of internationally acclaimed spiritual and humanitarian Mata Amritanandamayi Devi.

As for CML, it affects approximately two out of every 100,000 people in India annually. Almost 40 per cent of these cases are resistant to Imatinib. For such patients, treatment options are extremely limited.

“What we have done at Amrita is to take a particular ‘small-molecule inhibitor’ class of anti-cancer drug that is currently available in the market and encapsulate it into a protein nano-capsule,” says Dr. Shantikumar Nair, the Centre’s director.

“This allows the drug to be absorbed directly into the cancer cells circulating in the patient’s bloodstream. This has a marked increase on its efficacy in killing the cancer cells. Further, the circulation lifetime of the drug in the blood is increased, which also increases its efficacy,” he elaborates.

The nano-encapsulated version of the drug has shown itself to be non-toxic in healthy mice in tests conducted by his department, and it has similarly demonstrated itself to be effective in tests involving blood samples of people with Imatinib-resistant CML, points out Dr. Nair, an alumnus of the IIT, Mumbai and the Columbia University, New York.

Dr. Manzoor Koyakutty, professor at the Centre, says the next step is to evaluate its efficacy in fighting mice with CML. “If it continues to remain nontoxic and effective, we can move on to clinical trials,” adds the expert, who has co-invented the drug.

In the case of glioma, the standard treatment for people suffering from the disease is to excise the tumour, taking care to minimise loss of any healthy brain tissue, points out Dr Nair.

“This critical need to prevent damage to the brain tissue often means that some tumour residue remains after the excision. These residual tumour cells continue to proliferate, which leads to the recurrence of cancer,” adds the expert, a recipient of the prestigious National Research Award from the Ministry of Science & Technology.

Currently, there is a product in the market, Gliadel Wafer, which is a rigid dime-sized wafer that is inserted into the cavity left behind after the excision. This wafer releases a chemotherapy drug, ‘Carmustine’, which kills any residual tumour cells left behind after the tumour excision, thereby preventing its recurrence.

“The problem with Gliadel Wafer is two-fold,” he says. “First, it provides protection only for three to four weeks. Secondly, as it is rigid, it does not form to the contour of the excised region. At Amrita, we have developed a new polymer wafer, which continues to release the chemotherapy drug for six months to a year. Our wafer is also flexible, and it thus shapes itself to the contour excision,” said Dr Nair, who developed it along with Dr. Koyakutty.

The Centre’s wafer has been tested in healthy rats and it was found to be well-tolerated by the brain. The next step is to test the wafers in rats with brain tumours to check its efficacy in terms of preventing tumour recurrence. Following the conclusion of these preclinical trials, the wafers will be ready for testing in clinical trials.

Both the projects — nano-medicine for drug-resistant blood cancer and polymer wafer for brain tumour — were partly funded by the Department of Biotechnology of the Government of India.

“The opportunity to work under the visionary leadership of Amma; the opportunity to engage in science and technology as a service to society; to inspire young students in India to take to research—these were the objectives that brought me to Amma’s ashram years ago,” Dr Nair says.

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