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ANSTO Cancer Tech Gets Boots

Image Credits: ANSTO, Press Release

An international team led by ANSTO researcher Dr Mitra Safavi-Naeini has been awarded a program grant from the Foundation for Australia-Japan Studies (FAJS). The grant, awarded to the Human Health Research group at ANSTO, will fund critical steps in the ongoing development of Neutron Capture Enhanced Particle Therapy, (NCEPT) a potential break-through technique for cancer treatment using a particle accelerator technology.

NCEPT is a radical new approach to particle therapy being pioneered at ANSTO. The technology works by delivering a “one-two punch” to cancer cells. The first punch is given by the particle beam through direct irradiation of the tumour cells, while the second punch is given by drugs that capture secondary thermal neutrons generated internally during the irradiation. The secondary neutron capture events release high-energy particles such as lithium ions, alpha particles, or Auger electrons, which further damage and kill cancer cells.

Dr Mitra Safavi-Naeini, who leads the program noted that previously the team showed that NCEPT has tremendous potential for delivering an enhanced radiation dose to cancer cells inside the primary tumour, but, importantly, they have also shown it can work on cancer cells that have spread beyond the primary tumour. With the success of early-stage cell studies, this grant will support follow-up studies in Australia and at the HIMAC cancer treatment facility in Japan using laboratory models.

The grant will support the development of tools for predicting the uptake of neutron capture drugs in tumour-bearing pre-clinical models – a critical process for learning how to plan treatment for human clinical trials. Funding will also support assessments of NCEPT to reduce glioblastoma tumour growth, a highly aggressive and deadly form of brain cancer, in those models.

This is critical work to make progress on NCEPT, Dr Safavi-Naeini said. Selectively delivering neutron capture drugs inside the tumour, at high concentrations compared to surrounding healthy tissue, is extremely important. The higher the concentration of drug that we can get into the cancer cells, the better the chance of killing those cancer cells.

The NCEPT team is a diverse collaboration between physicists, chemists, and biologists. NCEPT is a success because of all the expertise and passion of the people who work on this program. Dr Mitra Safavi-Naeini and post-doctoral researcher Dr Andrew Chacon discovered NCEPT, an invention that was patented in 2018. Since that time, many ANSTO researchers have made significant contributions to the NCEPT program.

Biologist Nicholas Howell led the development of a medium-throughput in vitro model, using human glioblastoma cells, which independently measures the effect of the enhanced radiation dose on the ability of cells to proliferate in culture.

Using these methods at ANSTO and overseas, biologists Howell, Dr Ryan Middleton, and Dr Frederick Sierro have measured the ability of heavy ion radiation with enhanced radiation damage from neutron capture events to kill cancer cells.

The preliminary experiments were conducted using  ANSTO’s thermal neutron beamline Dingo and gamma irradiation facilities (GATRI) with key contributions from Dr Joseph Bevitt, Dr Justin Davies and Dr Ulf Garbe.

The ultimate proof-of-concept campaign was undertaken at the Heavy Ion Medical Accelerator in Chiba (HIMAC) in Japan. The physics, chemistry, and biology teams are currently collaborating on “proof of concept” using laboratory animals.

A post-doctoral researcher is also developing methods for measuring the ability of NCEPT to reduce the size of cancerous tumours in animals. The entire group is determined to progress NCEPT to human trials in the near future, it was noted.

The FAJS program contributes to the Australia‑Japan bilateral relationship by supporting education and research collaboration between academia, industry and government, particularly in the areas of science, technology and innovation.

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