New drugs for childhood cancer often come from adult oncology. If tumors have the same molecular weaknesses, you can see whether existing targeted drugs for adults also work in children. But childhood cancer is fundamentally different,’ says Molenaar. ‘About three-quarters of molecular changes in adult cancers don’t exist in childhood cancer and vice versa: there’s only overlap in about a quarter of the targets,’ he explains. ‘Limiting ourselves to adult drugs means we might be missing potential new treatments for children.’
In his research, Molenaar focuses on developing tailor-made treatment for every child with cancer. He does this by translating fundamental biology into new therapies. The high-throughput screening core facility in the Princess Máxima Center plays a major role in this effort. The facility allows for many possible candidate drugs to be tested in a short period of time to see whether they have an effect on certain genetic or molecular weaknesses in a tumor.
Together with the Department of Pharmaceutical Sciences, Molenaar wants to focus on discovering and developing new drugs that are specifically aimed at the abnormalities in childhood cancer. They will use a range of techniques including packaging drugs into small nanoparticles. They will also create combined molecules (so-called PROTACs) and test them on childhood cancer cells and 3D mini-tumors in the lab.
Exchange of techniques
Molenaar sees the collaboration between the Faculty of Science and the Máxima center as the main goal of his chair. ‘With my professorship I can establish the link between pharmaceutical sciences and the Máxima center, and fellow researchers in both organizations can then jump on board.’ He sees the exchange of techniques as particularly valuable. ‘By combining high-throughput screening with analyses of activated proteins in a tumor, we will soon be able to search more specifically for overlap in order to find promising new cancer drug candidates.’
There is no profitable model for the development of new drugs for childhood cancer. ‘You simply have to do that within academia,’ says Molenaar. ‘On the other hand, it is important that academics do more translational research to apply our understanding of cancer biology. I want to develop truly new therapies for childhood cancer.’
Jan Molenaar’s teaching mandate as professor of Precision Medicine in Pediatric Cancer at the Utrecht University Faculty of Science starts on 1 April. His inaugural lecture will take place at a later date.