Skip to main content
Brain Cancer

Radioactive drugs to track down cancer cells in the brain

There is no effective treatment for the aggressive brain cancer, glioblastoma, but researchers from SDU and OUH will now try to develop one. The idea is to load radioactive cancer-killing isotopes of certain metallic elements into specifically designed molecules that target cancer cells. This idea is supported by the Novo Nordisk Foundation with DKK 15 million.

By Birgitte Svennevig, , 1/31/2023

Every year, 250 Danes develop the aggressive form of brain cancer, glioblastoma, for which there is still no effective treatment. As a result, many of these cancer patients die within 2 years. A Danish/Irish research team now hopes to be able to change that in a new research project.

Christine McKenzie, Professor of chemistry at the Department of Physics, Chemistry and Pharmacy, SDU, is head of the project; Image and Destroy: New Radionuclides for Cancer Theranostics (ID-Cancer), funded by Novo Nordisk Foundation with DKK 15 million.

Other team members are Helge Thisgaard (hospital physicist at the Department of Nuclear Medicine, OUH, and Associate Professor at the Department of Clinical Research, SDU) and Andrew Kellett (Associate Professor at Dublin City University in Ireland).

More long-term survivors

The teams’ idea is to develop completely new types of tracers, in other words, target-seeking, radioactive theranostic drugs. Theranostic is a word derived from combining “therapy” and “diagnostic”.

Accordingly, these drugs will be able to carry two different radionuclides (isotopes) of a specific metallic element. Both will track down the cancer cells in the patient, but one will send out gamma rays to locate and image the cancer, and the other will irradiate the located cells' DNA.

In this way, the cancer cells are killed without damaging the healthy, surrounding tissue - meaning that side effects are minimized. The aim is that more people will be long-term survivors of this aggressive form of brain cancer.

- Our aim is to develop some new drugs based on radioactive elements copper, cobalt and antimony. These metallic elements have so far not been deployed in nuclear medicine, but they have some superior radioactive properties. And they can be produced locally in a hospital cyclotron. One isotope of each element can be used in a tracer to kill cancer cells, while another isotope can be used in a chemically identical tracer to detect cancer in PET scans, said Christine McKenzie.

Transportation is challenging

The challenge is to get the isotopes in question transported to their destination:

- The molecules that are used today for transport in nuclear medicine are not suitable for copper, cobalt and antimony. We need to design and synthesize new biocompatible molecules that can transport the isotopes into the body to the cancer cells. It is an advantage for us that isotopes of the same element can be used for both therapy and diagnostics; that means that we only have to develop one type of chemistry, she added.

Christine McKenzie's contribution to the project will be to develop so-called chelates, which are molecules that can specifically bind copper, cobalt, and antimony. They must then be tied to other molecules which have the task of finding the cancer cells.

Meet the researcher

Christine McKenzie is Professor of chemistry and pharmacy at the Department of Physics, Chemistry and Pharmacy, SDU.


Editing was completed: 31.01.2023