“What can I do to help improve patients’ lives?”

Interview with Katya Popova, Researcher at the Institute for Nuclear Research and Nuclear Energy, Sofia

Exciting recent developments in nuclear medicine provide effective cancer treatment in an ever more targeted way with minimal side effects. Today we talk with Katya Popova, Ph.D. in Genetics, and working at the Institute for Nuclear Research and Nuclear Energy in Sofia, at the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences. Her research mainly focuses on antisense oligonucleotides and radionuclides as novel therapeutics. Let’s learn more about her work.

Dear Katya,

What are the main passions and interests that inspire your work? Why did you choose to focus on this field of research?

I’ve always been passionate about biology and how vast and diverse this field is but what truly fascinates me up to this day is genetics and how our genes make us who and what we are. This drove me to deepen my knowledge in the field but while doing so I came to the realisation how much a mutation in a gene, part of an essential process, can affect one’s life. Nowadays, everyone has witnessed the severe consequences of one of the most globally devastating genetic diseases – cancer, whether it is a family member, a friend or a colleague.

According to the GLOBOCAN database of the IARC Global Cancer Observatory, the number of new cases in 2020 was more than 19 million, with Europe in second place. Such an immense number of people, along with an even greater number of people who are already diagnosed and undergoing treatment got me thinking, what can I actually do to help improve their lives? With that in mind I decided to do my PhD in a promising new strategy for targeted therapy which is the antisense technology. In the meantime, a friend of mine had already started working with radionuclides and we kept on talking about how great it would be if we can combine our efforts and knowledge to create novel therapeutics for the purpose of clinical theranostics. From talk to action, this was the beginning of a great collaboration that led me to work in the field of nuclear medicine.

Katya Popova at the Institute for Nuclear Research and Nuclear Energy in Sofia, part of the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences.

Could you please tell us more about your project? And what are its main benefits in relation to nuclear medicine?

I’m working on a project with my colleagues at the Institute for Nuclear Research and Nuclear Energy toward finding new promising mRNA targets that are responsible either for the growth of cancer cells or for their decrease or complete absence of sensitivity towards the current anticancer drugs. After we find such targets, I design different antisense oligonucleotides (ASOs) which are short pieces of modified RNA that can specifically hybridize with the targeted mRNA and inhibit its expression by RNAse cleavage. One of the advantages of this targeted technology is that a variety of 3 generation modifications can be applied to the ASOs in order to improve their pharmacokinetics and meet the needs of the nuclear medicine.

They can be radiolabeled with a specific amount of radionuclides that are suitable either for in vivo imaging and observation of the ASO therapy (123I, 125I, 99mTc, 111In, 11C, 18F, 68Ga) or for combined gene radiotherapy where both the ASO and the chosen radionuclide are to be safely delivered into a cancer patient with the purpose of co-inhibition of the targets only (131I , 177Lu, 90Y, 225Ac, 211At , 212Bi ). With such a project, we aim to help further improve the quality of molecular imaging, as well as to advance cancer treatment and develop more effective approaches where the treatment kills only cancer cells and not healthy ones.

What are the main developments that you expect?

Even though radioactive labelling of antisense oligonucleotides has its challenges, I already have designed a few promising radiolabeled ASOs, targeting one the most frequently deregulated driver genes in cancer – c-myc oncogene. The c-myc oncogene is part of the MYC proto-oncogene family which is often described as “undruggable” due to its hard to target nature. My hopes, and really our whole team’s hopes, are soon to be able to test those designs in vitro, along with other ASOs that we are currently developing. If they demonstrate the necessary qualities that we seek, we will continue with next phases of testing.

Why do you think nuclear medicine is so important? In your opinion, what are the main challenges nuclear medicine will have to face in the future?

For me one of the crucial roles of nuclear medicine is its non-invasive imaging technique with radionuclides which is able to accurately detect abnormalities at a very early stage in the progression of diseases such as cancer, heart disease, and Alzheimer’s disease with the help of PET/CT and SPECT/CT. This leads to definitely improved disease management and treatment with better outcomes for the patients. Another important role is, of course, the internal radiotherapy with either radioactive liquid treatment or brachytherapy.

Perhaps one of the challenges for the nuclear medicine in the future would be molecular targets. With the emergence of this field, more and more patients with a broader spectrum of diseases will need the aid of the nuclear imaging technique. However, this will lead to a growing need of better understanding behind the mechanisms of those diseases and finding targetable receptors or biomarkers that would make them suitable for the specific radioisotope imaging tools. Another challenge would be the limited availability of equipment – from phantoms and test tools to radioisotopes and kits in some of the developing countries.

ENS Event – “Beating Cancer – Turning the tide with medical isotopes”

Every year 10 million patients in Europe benefit from nuclear medicine. In the past decade, research has made tremendous progress and medical isotopes are expected to become an even more vital tool in the treatment of many types of cancers.

By focusing on these topics, ENS and Euratom Supply Agency organise the informative session “Beating Cancer – Turning the tide with medical isotopes“, on 17th April in Antwerp and Online.

Register here: https://www.eventbrite.it/e/beating-cancer-turning-the-tide-with-medical-isotopes-tickets-531909243867

You can attend the event on-site or via live streaming. It is free of charge, but registration is mandatory.

In this session, we will learn about the use of medical isotopes for diagnosis and treatment. Our experts will give an update on increasingly effective therapeutics and the expected growth in medical nuclear procedures in line with these dynamic developments.

More details are available here: https://www.eventbrite.it/e/beating-cancer-turning-the-tide-with-medical-isotopes-tickets-531909243867