Synthetic biology and precision medicine in blood and gynaecological cancers

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Published: 21 Dec 2023
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Dr Mutsa Takundwa - Council for Scientific and Industrial Research, Pretoria, South Africa

Dr Mutsa Takundwa speaks to ecancer about the work that The Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) are doing in synthetic biology, genome engineering and precision medicine.

She shares presentations on the work that is being done in blood cancer and also gynaecological cancers in South Africa.

Dr Takundwa also highlights the importance of collaborations and partnerships in clinical trials and this type of research.

Synthetic biology and precision medicine in blood and gynaecological cancers

Dr Mutsa Takundwa - Council for Scientific and Industrial Research, Pretoria, South Africa

Can you give us an overview of the presentation of your abstract?

I’m based in the Synthetic Biology and Precision Medicine Centre of the CSIR, it’s a newly established centre. This has brought our organisation into the health space and we have two arms of research. On the synthetic biology arm we look at genome engineering to minimise genomes for higher productive for industrial applications such as vaccine production and the like. In the second arm we have precision medicine and that’s what brings us to AORTIC as we are working in cancer.

We are working in both blood and solid tumours. So in the blood cancers at the moment we have started with leukaemia and multiple myeloma and then on the solid tumours we’ve started working in gynaecological cancers. But the platform we’re setting up actually has applications across the board.

You presented a poster in Leukaemia and Multiple Myeloma, could you explain what this poster is about?

The platform, as I’ve said, that we’re setting up, it’s a high throughput drug sensitivity screening platform where you are able to bring in patient samples that are derived from patients who have cancer and then you are able to screen across a library of about 720 FDA approved drugs that we have to be able to say which drug is more effective for a particular patient. That’s where the precision medicine approach comes in.

So with leukaemia and multiple myeloma, what we have done in collaboration with Wits University, Wits Donald Gordon Cancer Unit, as well as Chris Hani Baragwanath Hospital in Johannesburg, these are cancer units in the province where we are, in Gauteng. So we are able to derive patient cells from leukaemia patients. We have collected about 80 patient samples between the multiple myeloma and leukaemia.

So these samples then we are able to screen with our platform and the library of drugs to see how responsive or what profiles are we getting for drug responses in these African populations. As you are aware, over the years how these drugs are developed, there is a dearth of information from African populations. Whether it is the genomics or even how do they respond to the drugs because the clinical trials that are performed in cancer have very little input from African populations. It’s not only in cancer, actually, a lot of the drugs developed across the world, very few clinical trials in this has come out at this conference, that there is a great need for more clinical trials to be performed in Africa.

So we are at the preclinical stage where we can screen the patient cells and be able to say these are the hits we are getting, this is what is more likely to be more effective. Then we pass that on, then, to the clinicians who can then perform a clinical trial on those particular drugs.

What message would you give to your colleagues?

Collaboration is key. We are scientists based at a research council but we’re working together with clinicians who are in the hospitals, we are working with patients. So partnerships and collaborations are key in this type of work if we are going to get even to the level of clinical trials. Those are multidisciplinary teams that have different aspects of work that go into that. You have the clinician attending to the patient at the bed but you also have support systems, psychology, this is patients who have cancer and have other issues that come along. So it’s a very multidisciplinary type of team that you have to assemble. So you really have to be someone who can collaborate and partner with others, you cannot do this on your own.

So collaboration and partnerships are key and I’m glad, even here at AORTIC, I’ve seen a lot of support coming from funders like the NCI, Dana-Farber Institute is here. There are a lot of international partners and players. To bring the applications of some of these technologies or these treatments that could be effective in these populations is very key to collaborating partners.

Is there anything else you would like to add?

Just if people are able to reach us, reach out to us, if we can grow the sample sizes of what we’ve collected, like I said, for multiple myeloma. At the moment we are at 80, we’ve got two PhD students working on these two different cancers as their PhD projects so they have about 40 samples each. So we have validated the platform with what we could get with them but we’re looking to take this to become a routine exercise that we could offer to clinicians and enable them to make better decisions in how they treat their patients.

Can you give us an overview of the presentation in Gynaecology cancers?

In the gynae cancers we are working with the University of Pretoria, the obs and gynae unit there through the gynaecologic cancer unit run by Professor Dreyer, together with the fellows in that unit. We focussed on ovarian and uterine cancer and also, even with leukaemia and multiple myeloma, a lot of the research in Africa has not been around these cancers. So we went for the neglected cancers.

So with ovarian cancer, although not much has been done in the region around this cancer, it is actually one of the most deadliest cancers, not only in Africa but worldwide. So we are interested to find alternative therapies for patients who have relapsed, gone through several rounds of chemo and the clinicians are not finding anything. So again the drug repurposing platform could identify drugs that could potentially lead to a longer life for people who really need treatment options.