Pioneering research by a professor of computer engineering at Polytechnique Montréal has produced a promising treatment for cancer that uses bacteria and magnetic fields to spread chemotherapy drugs throughout the volume of tumours.
Stemming from more than 20 years of study by Dr. Sylvain Martel and his team at the university’s nanorobotics laboratory, the work has been further developed by a Montreal company, Starpax Biopharma Inc., into a technology to treat cancer, with plans to start clinical human trials of the therapy this autumn.
“This will have a huge impact,” says Dr. Martel, whose first breakthrough came in 2001, shortly after arriving at Polytechnique Montréal from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He initially focused on using microscopic robots and then on special “magnetotactic” bacteria to transport cancer drugs to tumours, avoiding the exposure of healthy organs and the side-effects of standard chemotherapy. He says the research has benefited from his position at Polytechnique Montréal, from the financial resources of Quebec and Canadian granting agencies to the laboratory space and sophisticated equipment he uses and collaborations with university hospitals in Montreal.
Research is not a straight line. You start with a fundamental idea, but it’s a blank page. Then you learn, and you go deeper. Polytechnique Montréal made that possible.— Dr. Sylvain Martel, Professor of computer engineering at Polytechnique Montréal
“Research is not a straight line,” explains Dr. Martel. “You start with a fundamental idea, but it’s a blank page. Then you learn, and you go deeper. Polytechnique Montréal made that possible.”
Today, Starpax has developed a technology that integrates the proofs-of-concepts of two exclusive patents in electromagnetism resulting from the work of Dr. Martel, acquired in 2018 from Polytechnique Montréal. The company’s cancer-treatment technology brings together 31 patented or patent-pending inventions in all, says Michel Gareau, the founder, president and CEO of Starpax.
He says chemotherapy drugs for more than a century have been injected in the bloodstream, so less than 1 per cent of the dose reaches the tumour while the rest of the toxic molecules spread throughout the body. “A meta-analysis of 117 studies around the world concluded that 90 per cent of the volume of a tumour receives little or no drug at all with systemic chemotherapy,” Mr. Gareau notes. It’s especially difficult to penetrate “hypoxic” zones in tumours that are low in oxygen and are not vascularized, which can cause cancer recurrence and metastasis.
The Starpax technology injects the medication directly into the tumour in a high concentration, transported by a patented non-pathogenic bacterium that is sensitive to magnetic fields so it can be precisely controlled. A Starpax “PolarTrak” creates a magnetic sphere around the tumour to contain and distribute these “Magnetodrones” throughout the tumour, targeting cancer cells and penetrating hypoxic zones.
Starpax expects the technology to work for 90 per cent of cancers, says Mr. Gareau, pointing out that the technology uses available, approved drugs. “We just get more of them to the right place, limiting toxicity because they only affect the tumour.” The company is also developing applications for non-cancer conditions such as heart, lung, brain and eye diseases.
Starpax today has 45 staff, and it’s supported by more than 350 experts helping to research, develop and produce the technology in clinical settings with humans.
Mr. Gareau, an engineer who worked in high-tech private equity for more than 40 years, says academic researchers such as Dr. Martel are critical in inventing concepts “because they have no limits,” although they depend on companies like Starpax to take their discoveries beyond the laboratory. “It’s a team effort.”
Dr. Martel and others at Polytechnique Montréal continue to actively collaborate with Starpax, which plans to have its product in commercial use within two years.
“It’s very exciting,” says Dr. Martel, who’s convinced this will change the face of cancer treatment. “Every day, I do calculations, and the more I look at it, the more I believe in the technology.”
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