Cancer affects the lives of thousands of people every day. Cancer cells that break off from a primary tumour and enter the bloodstream or lymph vessels can reach nearly all tissues of the body. Bones are a common place for these cancer cells to settle and start growing. Tumours that result from these cells entering the bones are called bone metastases and can cause an extreme amount of pain and even skeletal fractures, resulting in a tremendous reduction in the patient’s quality of life. Once cancer has spread to the bones or to other sites in the body it is rarely curable, although various treatments are currently available to shrink, stop or at least slow the growth of cancer cells.
In July 2015, the Department of Nuclear Medicine at UP, in collaboration with Steve Biko Academic Hospital, ITG Isotopes Technologies and NTP Radioisotopes (a subsidiary of the South African Nuclear Energy Corporation), pioneered an exciting first-in-human anti-cancer procedure utilising a combination of radiopharmaceutical diagnosis and therapy. The procedure was developed by ITG and performed in South Africa for the very first time by Prof Sathekge and his team, along with Dr Sebastian Marx and Dr Marian Meckel of ITG and Dr Otto Knoesen of NTP.
The approach entails a combination of therapy and diagnostics (theranostics) in which the same type of targeting molecule is used to obtain images and to deliver the dose of therapeutic isotope selectively to the tumour site, allowing for patient-specific dose calculation. It is expected that this procedure will especially be of great benefit to patients suffering the debilitating effects of metastatic bone disease.
To date, more than 100 imaging procedures and treatments employing therapeutic radiopharmaceutical agents have been performed with great success at Steve Biko Academic Hospital. In 2015 Prof Sathekge also performed Africa’s first isotope-labelled theranostics procedure for prostate cancer. This type of procedure has since been done several times and will be performed routinely in future.
The ground-breaking work that Prof Sathekge and his team at the Department of Nuclear Medicine have been doing will ensure that science is taken to the heart of health through thorough research on the diseases that impact the lives of so many people in our country every day.