WITS develops a therapeutic for aggressive Breast Cancer


Researchers at the University of the Witwatersrand (WITS) have developed a potential treatment for Triple Negative Breast Cancer (TNBC), a particularly aggressive cancer which mostly affects women of colour under the age of 50.

Currently, treatment of breast cancer includes using drugs which selectively target hormone receptors, those which boost the immune system, as well as chemotherapeutic drugs. These treatments are not effective against TNBC and are associated with severe side effects such as the development of endometrial cancer.

The therapeutic developed at WITS is based on a compound used to improve the solubility of various drugs currently on the market. It is now showing promise for treating TNBC The therapeutic has been tested in mice with great success, reducing tumours by 74% in late-stage cancer and 94% in intermediate-stage cancer. Tumours are 100% healed in early stage cancer.

According to WITS’ Professor Mandeep Kaur who is leading the research, laboratory studies show that the therapeutic could treat cancer both as a standalone and can also be combined with chemotherapeutic drugs to increase their efficacy.

“I am eager to progress the testing, development and eventual roll out of this therapeutic in Africa to tackle a problem mostly affecting women of African descent. If successful, the world can take advantage to bring hope and life to women and their loved ones across the globe,” says Professor Kaur.

During her research career, Professor Kaur has worked on several projects linked to cancer but it was while working as a senior research scientist in the Middle East where she was exposed to high rates of TNBC that she began focusing on the disease. She started working on testing new compounds which had potential for treating this deadly and aggressive form of cancer.

“My passion grew further when I moved to South Africa because African women are also at higher risk of developing this cancer,” she says.

It was during her earlier studies between 2012 and 2016 that she came across a new molecule that killed cancer cells by removing cholesterol from the cells.

“I was fascinated with the concept of cholesterol and its role in cancer. To expand my work further, I looked for a different class of compounds that could efficiently remove cholesterol from cells and I identified KS-01 (pseudonym). Although it was a perfect fit as a cholesterol depletory – reducing the levels of cholesterol in a cell - it had never been tested against TNBC cells. I started working on this in 2016 with my then PhD student, Dr Sourav Taru Saha, and it took us three years to undertake the relevant studies, culminating in confirmation of the molecule’s action in mice.”

Professor Kaur and her team at the School of Molecular and Cell Biology at WITS are hugely excited about the potential of the therapeutic for treating TNBC and are eager to get started on the clinical trials. Funding remains the missing link that is required to advance the project.

The Technology Innovation Agency has provided seed funding for the project and WITS Enterprise’s Innovation Support team is assisting with raising additional funds to commence with the clinical trials. WITS Enterprise assists WITS’ innovators with various innovation steps including fundraising, business case development, incubation and spinning out companies.

“WITS Enterprise has been a great support with mediating the seed funding application, to filing patents and now with the untiring search for funds.”

“We are working hard to raise funds for clinical trials to assess dosing requirements and the efficacy of the therapeutic in patients. We plan to enroll 50 patients in Phase IIa and 150 in Phase IIb. The trials will be run at three different hospital sites. The timeframes for completion are dependent on the availability of the patients, but could be as soon as 3 years.” says Professor Kaur.

Following Phase II trials, the next step would be to work with pharmaceutical companies to partner with us on Phase III trials and develop plans to bring the therapeutic to patients.

About Professor Mandeep Kaur

Professor Mandeep Kaur obtained her PhD in India in 2003 and since has worked in various universities in South Africa and Saudi Arabia. She joined WITS University in 2015 as an Associate Professor and since then her lab has grown and is currently hosting two postdoctoral fellows, six PhDs and two MSc students.

She has published 53 research articles in international peer-reviewed journals including Cell, Nature Genetics, and Nucleic Acids Research. She has been involved in fielding of several patents and is driven by a desire to see research become successful innovations that can positively impact society. She is also a reviewer for several acclaimed journals and funding agencies. She describes herself as a very homely person. Her hobbies are her work and being with family.

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