Imagine a more effective, less-invasive way of targeting cancer than traditional chemotherapy

Professor Clive Prestidge and his research team

People diagnosed with cancer often fear the chemotherapy and its impact on the body as much as the cancer diagnosis itself.

Researchers at the University of South Australia are striving to achieve less invasive drug delivery through a new development of oral chemotherapies with improved absorption, lower toxicity, and maximum reduction in tumour growth.

According to internationally renowned biopharmaceutical researcher Clive Prestidge – Professor at UniSA’s Cancer Research Institute – preclinical tests of these new oral treatments demonstrate the potential to bring more efficient and less toxic chemotherapy strategies to patients.

Clive leads the Nanostructure and Drug Delivery research group focused on pharmaceutical formulation and says the lipid-prodrug based technology he and his team are working on not only changes the way chemotherapy drugs are absorbed in the body but also “crosses the biological barriers and changes their distribution to make them safer.”

As an example, “Current bowel cancer drugs can cause mucosal and gut damage. The cocktail of highly toxic drugs is very severe and hits the whole body. The gastrointestinal system becomes white and inflamed as the chemotherapy destroys the gut’s lining and people can get life-threatening diarrhea.”

“By converting an injectable therapy into a pill, the cancer patient can take it at home and hence reduce the burden on our health care system and oncology wards.”

While precision or personalised cancer treatments are very much in the spotlight, these new oral delivery systems will serve to enhance the distribution pathway of the drugs we currently use.

“It’s true, some of the best new medicines are targeted therapies” says Clive. “But the cost-of bringing them to market is prohibitive. Most standard practice still uses traditional chemotherapy and is likely to for some time, so we need to improve the efficacy-toxicity balance to make the most of existing drug delivery methods which are cheaper and more accessible to patients”.

For Clive, this research has taken on personal significance after being diagnosed with bowel cancer early last year.

Clive completed a national bowel screening test and even though it showed the presence of blood in his sample, he went into his scheduled colonoscopy expecting a clear diagnosis. As a dedicated cyclist with very high fitness levels he reasoned that there could be many other reasons for traces of blood besides cancer.

Receiving the news that he had bowel cancer felt completely surreal.

After what he expected to be a routine procedure at 5 pm on a Friday afternoon, Clive woke up to the news that a growth had been found that looked serious and that he was being referred to see a surgeon the following week.

“I didn’t expect it. The previous weekend I’d ridden 200 kilometres in the charity ride for the Tour Down Under. I felt fighting fit. “They showed me the pictures they’d taken during the procedure and a few expletives came out. Of course, once I got the news, I didn’t sleep for the next few days” Clive says.

By the following Tuesday the pathology confirmed it was colorectal cancer. “They told me half my colon would need to be removed. “Of course, you start imagining the worst scenario – I’m not going to make it. Thinking of my family and young daughter, I started to tear up… My thoughts were all over the place.”

As a scientist, Clive started to question the young colorectal specialist on his experience. “How long have you been doing this?” “How many of these surgeries have you performed?” He was stunned to hear the surgeon had performed more than 500 bowel cancer surgeries in the last two years. “This was just one surgeon in Adelaide” says Clive. “Imagine how many other surgeries are being performed in this city alone! The growth of this disease is significant.”

After surgery and nine days in hospital, he was finally discharged to recover at home. “Fortunately, chemotherapy was not part of my treatment” Clive says. “One of the concerning issues is just how compromised chemotherapy patients’ immune systems become. They are susceptible to getting very sick from basic colds and flus, let alone something like coronavirus.”

Clive’s experience has made him even more passionate about finding a breakthrough in improved cancer treatment.

“Working in this field, the stories that you come across are compelling. It all feels very close to home.”

As well as research on colorectal cancer, Clive is currently collaborating on projects for treating other types of cancers including lung cancer and leukemia.

“We are making good progress in cancer prognosis, but certain cancers are increasing at an alarming rate because of lifestyles and environment. I was recently talking to a surgeon who had planned to retire but can’t because there’s just too much work.”

Due to so much need, research funding is tight and in the current climate, it can be particularly difficult to access.

UniSA’s Cancer Research Institute brings together over 350 leading biomedical, genetic and pharmacological experts located in the UniSA Cancer Research building on North Terrace. With so many minds at work, the effort is moving fast, and yet, for many cancer patients, it’s still not fast enough.

Time is critical, and delays have a significant impact on survival outcomes. Your support has helped our researchers bring world-leading discoveries and treatments to patients sooner so we can save lives faster. And together we can do so much more.

Support the ground-breaking research Clive and his team are doing to develop a novel chemotherapy solution in oral form and other cancer research, by donating here.

On the other side of his health crisis, Clive is back to cycling every week, training for the SA Tour De Cure charity ride and says the things he now values most are his family, his friends, his health, and the work that he gets to do with amazing colleagues. “If things hadn’t have gone the way that they did, my story could look much different.”

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The University of South Australia (UniSA) is committed to tackling one of our most challenging diseases – cancer – by establishing the largest cohort of cancer researchers ever assembled in South Australia. Every day our experts are getting one-step closer to saving more lives as well as improving the quality of life for cancer survivors. But they need your help.

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