A team of researchers at the Indian Institute of Technology-Madras (IIT-M) have devised a technique that uses a new class of molecules called immunotoxins that specifically target cancer cells and help reduce the side effects leukemia patients have to endure during their treatment.

Rama S. Verma, professor of stem cell and molecular biology at IIT-M’s department of biotechnology, said that immonotoxins are a group of molecules which target the specific cancer depending upon the receptors present on or over-expressed on the cancer cell.

"We know the ligands (ions or neutral molecules bonding to a central metal atom or ion) for that particular receptor and the ligands of that particular receptor are tied with the toxin molecule (which could be of plant or bacterial origin)…We also made several molecules to understand the biology and how they target the cancer…and they work very nicely," Varma told IANS.

Leukemia affects the bone marrow, which, being a site of blood cell production, results in a large number of abnormal white blood cells entering the bloodstream.

Most cancer patients have to undergo either chemotherapy or radiation therapy, both of which lead to side effects like hair loss, tiredness, bruising and skin-related problems.

However, Varma, who became an independent researcher at IIT-M nearly 11 years ago, felt that when these plant and bacterial origins are injected in humans they are capable of producing some immune response leading to side effects.

"So, why not search about something which cannot elicit any immunogenicity (the property enabling a substance to provoke an immune response)…We found out there is a process known as apoptosis – which is a programmed cell death. There were a few death fragmentation factors involved which are of immune origin, so why not we tag these death fragmentation factors into those ligands and try to see (what happens). That’s how we ended up developing this molecule which will not be able to elicit any immunogenicity when we inject it in humans."

The team, whose research is basically targeted at basic pediatric and adult leukemia, said that owing to its side-effects not a single immunotoxin was present in the market.

"But they are in the last stage of clinical studies. So, probably in a couple of years a few molecules will come as therapeutic molecules in treating cancer patients," Varma said.

"They were not around for a long time because there was a lot of drawbacks. There was a lot of pain and side-effects. But what we are trying to construct will probably not have any side effects. So I am doing clinical studies in terms of patient samples and then we have to do stability tests on mice and after that I am looking for somebody who can sponsor my work so that i can go ahead and do some clinical studies."

Despite worries about funding, Varma hopes to undertake clinical trials within two to three years.

"I have got most of the funding from the department of science and technology because the clinical trials are very expensive. I would look forward to some investor or some company who can sponsor my research or we can work together," Varma said.