Featured academics: Dr. Amin Hajitou
5 minutes with...
1. Tell us about your research in a nutshell.
If we start from the beginning, I have always been interested in finding new treatments for cancers. However, from a scientific point of view existing therapies are inefficient, with only a small amount ending up in tumours. Most of the treatment ends up all over the rest of the body, which is obviously detrimental to the health of existing tissues.
We needed to find a way to deliver technologies that don’t live in these healthy tissues to spare them and so my career has focussed on using particles to better target tumours and, eventually, I started working with bacteriophage, a type of bacterial virus. These bacteria viruses are really incredible because they only detect, infect and kill bacteria. They are safe because they don’t infect healthy human tissues and we can engineer them to make them selective. To make them selective, we used receptors specifically expressed in cancers - but not in the healthy tissues - and guided the bacteriophage towards those receptors.
Our technologies were adopted by the National Cancer Institute (NCI) in the USA, and they used our bacteriophage viruses to deliver cytokine genes to treat spontaneous cancers in dogs – people’s beloved pets. In one dog there was a tumour of 14cm, which disappeared completely during the treatment! So, it was quite good.
In the last three years, we began to have interest from pharma companies for the application of our viruses. We also started a collaboration with the gene therapy community because, despite extensive research there doesn’t exist highly effective targeted gene therapies in this area. There is a particular problem in delivering traditional gene therapy through the systemic circulation, while our bacteriophages can be successfully delivered through the systemic circulation to target the tumours. In addition, the use of our bacteria viruses brings down the cost of therapies significantly.
2. Why does your research matter?
The treatment of tumours is extremely important, with a significant amount of society’s resources already being dedicated to finding solutions. My group’s research contributes 5 key potential advances:
- The technology is highly targeted to cancer, therefore significantly more efficient
- The use of bacteria viruses can bring down the cost of therapies significantly. This is especially obvious in comparison to traditional gene therapy, which can become very expensive once you move outside the lab, and potentially most important for treatments with potential commercial applications.
- We showed that repeated treatments with our viruses can stay active past 8 weeks. It’s currently often difficult to repeat treatment with existing viral therapies.
- We can produce viruses at very high titers. This means scaling up production is possible with our viruses – which we proved in the NCI dog trials.
- Using our viruses intravenously has the advantage of targeting both primary tumours and metastases.
We are currently aiming to enter clinical trials and achieve positive results before 2020 with products being adopted into mainstream healthcare after that.
3. Who/what sectors would be interested in hearing more about your research?
- Immuno-oncology R&D teams;
- Gene therapy, in general.
- Brain tumour researchers specifically;
The viruses we use have a natural ability to cross the blood brain barrier, which is necessary for targeted delivery of therapies in the brain. Currently glioblastomas, the most aggressive tumours of the central nervous system, and the least responsive to intervention, lead to death in a disproportionate number of patients under 40 years old. Also, there is no treatment in children with some types of brain tumours (namely diffuse intrinsic pontine gliomas or DIPG). My research group has been funded by Children with Cancer UK, Brain Tumour Research Campaign and the Medical Research Council to progress our technologies in this field, something that’s urgently needed.