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Q&A: Treating cancer with precisely targeted drugs

Yana Dekempeneer is researching the next generation of cancer drugs that attack only the malignant cells, leaving the healthy ones intact.

Proponents of targeted therapy – a more precise method of killing cancer cells – call it the future of cancer treatment. Yana Dekempeneer is a PhD student at the Free University of Brussels (VUB) and the Belgian Nuclear Research Centre, where she investigates nanobodies, antibody fragments that could become the building blocks for the new generation of targeted-therapy drugs. She’s just received a grant of €13,000 to continue her research.

You work with so-called radioactive nanobodies. What are they?

Nanobodies are very small fragments derived from antibodies occurring naturally in members of the Camelidae family, like camels and alpacas. Just like a complete antibody, which is the key component of every immune system, nanobodies are able to bind selectively with a specific antigen. Due to their unique structure, high stability, small size and ease of production, nanobodies are ideal building blocks for a generation of drugs with multiple competitive advantages over other therapeutic molecules.

How could cancer patients benefit from your research?

I focus on targeted therapy using alpha-particle emitters. Due to the high energy make-up of radioactive alpha-particles, they allow precise delivery of highly toxic radiation to target cells – the cancer cells – with limited harm to healthy untargeted cells nearby. This strategy could be ideal for the treatment of small malignant cell populations, such as metastasis. I am convinced that targeted alpha therapy is the best form of treatment for cancer, especially for metastatic cancer. My goal is to get this therapy into clinics.

You’ve just received €13,000 from the waste-treatment company Incovo in Zemst. Why would Incovo be interested in cancer research?

In 2015, I received a €37,000 starter grant from the cancer charity Kom Op Tegen Kanker to finance the beginning of my PhD research. An article about this appeared in the media, and it caught the attention of some employees at Incovo, which is located in my hometown. The taxus plant, a common garden shrub, is used in cancer-treatment methods, such as chemotherapy. Like many waste-treatment companies in Flanders, Incovo collects the clippings of the plant from residents and sells it on to pharma companies. The firm decided to donate their profits from the sale of the clippings to my research. That support is really welcome, as obtaining radioactive compounds is expensive.