Doctors treat tumors mainly through surgery, radiotherapy, and chemotherapy. Over the next four years, a new project of Bielefeld University and 14 European partners will be studying targeted cancer treatments. The idea is that special molecules will track tumor cells in the body and then deliver an active agent that ensures that the cancerous cells are removed. Fifteen doctoral students will be working together in the ‘Magicbullet::Reloaded’ research network. The project is a cooperation between universities, research institutes, and industry. It is being funded by the European Union with a budget of around four million euro.

In this project, the scientists are continuing the work of the ‘Magicbullet’ network. Between 2015 and 2018, this network developed the scientific basis for targeted cancer drugs that use peptide molecules to transport the anti-tumor agent.

‘What we want to do in the new network is to take this research further,’ says Professor Dr Norbert Sewald from Bielefeld University’s Faculty of Chemistry and the Center for Biotechnology (CeBiTec). Following on from ‘Magicbullet’, the chemist is now coordinating ‘Magicbullet::Reloaded’.

In future, the researchers will not just be working exclusively on peptide conjugates (tiny protein molecules) and anti-tumor agents. ‘In addition to the peptides, we shall be directing our research towards further small molecules that can be combined with active agents and target tumor cells,’ according to Sewald. The second focus of the new project will be on the active agents: ‘This time, we are concentrating on drugs that can enable the immune system to recognize tumors as harmful and remove them.’

‘With this kind of drug, we can potentially treat tumors less aggressively than with, for example, conventional chemotherapy,’ says Dr Marcel Frese, a member of Sewald’s research team. Frese is working on implementing Magicbullet::Reloaded. ‘Chemotherapy generally applies active agents that damage cells. They should poison the cancer cells. However, the drawback is that they also damage healthy cells.’

The new project links together both basic and applied research.

At the universities and research institutes in the project, we are developing prototypes for future tumor therapies. Our industrial partners will then test these prototypes in pre-clinical studies. The first results gained from Magicbullet are already very promising. However, we still have a very long way to go before clinical treatment can proceed, and we cannot expect that our conjugates will be on the market in the next few years.”

Professor Dr Norbert Sewald, Bielefeld University

Magicbullet::Reloaded brings together researchers from organic and medical chemistry, tumor biology, and pharmacology. In the new consortium, Bielefeld University is cooperating with partners from six countries. Eight universities are participating: the Eötvös Loránd University (ELTE) in Budapest (Hungary), the ETH Zurich (Switzerland), Newcastle University (Great Britain), the Technische Universität Darmstadt (Germany), the University of Helsinki (Finland), the University of Insubria (Italy), the University of Milan (Italy), and the University of Cologne (Germany). Two research institutes are participating: the Fraunhofer Institute for Toxicology and Experimental Medicine in Hanover (Germany), and the National Institute for Cancer Research OOI in Budapest (Hungary). Four pharmaceutical companies are also involved: Exiris (Italy), Heidelberg Pharma (Germany), Philochem AG (Switzerland), and Takis Biotech (Italy). The network is receiving additional support from the associated industrial partners Bayer (Germany), Italfarmaco (Italy), and Kineto Lab (Hungary).