NWT researcher's work could enhance chemo, protect heart

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A researcher who grew up in Inuvik and Yellowknife believes his team's latest research could not only make chemotherapy more effective, but also help to save lives.

Gopi Sutendra is one of a group whose work, published this month, demonstrates one way to reduce chemotherapy's harmful side-effects on the heart while also improving its impact on tumours.

"Patients may live longer and may have actually a more beneficial chemotherapy treatment where they won't suffer from adverse effects like heart failure or cardiac dysfunction," said Sutendra, now a professor at the University of Alberta.

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Sutendra lived in Inuvik from 1986 to 1989, then attended Yellowknife's St Patrick's elementary and high schools from 1989 to 1997.

His team's work uses a compound to target a protein found in both a patient's heart and tumours. The protein reacts differently to oxygen depending on whether it is in the heart or a tumour, which is key to the treatment.

"When we stabilized this protein with drugs," said Sutendra, "what we found was it actually protected the heart from dying. It prevented chemotherapy from killing the heart."

Side-effects of some chemotherapy treatments, such as hair loss or loss of gut lining, are well-known, but the impact of such treatment on the heart is different.

"For normal cells – for example your hair follicles or lining in the gut – once the chemotherapy is removed, those cells grow continuously," said Sutendra. "And so that means that your hair will grow back and your gut line will grow back and you tend to recover.

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"But you are only born really with a defined number of heart cells, and they replicate or grow at a very, very small rate.

"When you give chemotherapy and it causes heart cells to die, you don't get those heart cells back. And so that's why, in those patients, it's important to protect the heart – because the cells won't recover and those patients will suffer from cardiac dysfunction long-term."

Not only does Sutendra's proposed solution stop chemotherapy killing heart cells; it also increases the effectiveness of chemotherapy against tumours.

In full: The research team's publication in Science Translational Medicine

He hopes the treatment will "at least try to improve quality of life and potentially also survival as well."

However, there are a number of stages still to be completed before the three-year research program – initially tested in mice – can be proven to be safe, practical, and effective in human patients.

One of the U of A researchers' next steps will be to approach pharmaceutical companies already using compounds similar to the one developed by the team, for help in fast-tracking early clinical trials.

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