U of A researchers developing 'magic' pill to boost immunity while battling cancer

University of Alberta associate professor Khaled Barakat and his team of researchers have spent the past four years trying to develop  what he's calling a 'magic pill'. 

Research team hopes to use molecule inhibitors to attack different kinds of cancers

University of Alberta researcher Khaled Barakat holds up a diagram of a small molecule that will help people's immune systems attack cancer. (Min Dhariwal/CBC)

University of Alberta associate professor Khaled Barakat and his team of researchers have spent the past four years trying to develop what he's calling a "magic" pill. 

It's a drug to strengthen peoples' immune systems while they are battling cancer.

"The concept, it's kind of magic because it's not related to a specific type of cancer, it's using the human's immune system to identify and find and discover the cancer and try to get rid of it. So this is what we think is magic," said Barakat, whose research was made possible thanks to funding from the Alberta Cancer Foundation and the Li Ka Shing Institute of Virology.

"Cancer is very smart."

Barakat says cancer attacks the body first by suppressing peoples' immune systems.

It does this by creating an abundance of receptors called immune checkpoints; when too many are made it deactivates T-cells, which are crucial to the immune system. 

How it works

To help combat the T-cell issue, Barakat and his colleagues are designing a drug that would reduce the activity of these receptors, in turn "reactivating" the T-cells. 

"When these T-cells are reactivated, what they do is look for cancer and they try to fight it and employ the different tools of the immune system to target these cancer cells and get rid of them," said Barakat. 

One challenge the team faces is making sure the drug doesn't strengthen the autoimmune system beyond its normal level. 

When that happens, it creates autoimmune diseases and hypersensitivity reactions — prompting the immune system to start attacking cancer tissues and normal tissues. 
University of Alberta researchers Arno Siraki, left, and Khaled Barakat are hoping the development of a 'magic pill' will help fight cancer by boosting people's immune systems. (Min Dhariwal/CBC)

"The promise of being able to tackle cancers in this way is really the sort of magic behind it," said Arno Siraki, director of Pharmaceutical Sciences Graduate Studies and one of Barakat's main research partners.

"Turning on the immune system, reactivating it to actually do its job and not to be tricked by the cancer, is the ultimate goal," he added. 

According to Barakat, the concept has been tested and proven for advanced melanoma, lung cancer, and prostate cancer. 

"What we hope for now is to get a partner, a pharmaceutical company, where they put an army of chemists on this, so instead of doing only like 100 molecules that we do in our labs which is the maximum we can do with the current resources, we're hoping to maximize this to thousands of molecules," Barakat said.

More chemists will allow them to get to the next step in the process, faster. 

After that it's on to animal trials and then clinical trials.

Barakat equates all of it to trying to solve a Rubik's Cube. 

"You have six faces. What we did is we coloured one face now. What we hope to do is to really colour the rest of the faces and solve this problem."