Searching among 5,685 substances for the next cancer drug

In a joint project researchers from Erasmus Medical Center, Delft University of Technology, and Leiden University Medical Center are looking for a drug that can prevent cancer from spreading. Remarkable: the researchers are searching in a library of substances that are already used in daily practice.

Patients who are subscribed to statins against high cholesterol are less likely to develop certain forms of cancer. Like this, there are more indications that medication against certain diseases may also be effective against cancer. Who knows what other drugs are in circulation that can help against the number one cause of death in the Netherlands.

Scientists from Delft University of Technology, the Leiden University Medical Center (LUMC) and Erasmus MC are investigating this in a joint research project. They are looking for promising new medication in an LUMC library where 5,685 different medicinal substances are stored.

Liquid biopsies

Erasmus MC internist-oncologist Stefan Sleijfer explains how the team will proceed: ‘Typically, in the first phase of similar studies, tests are done on cancer cell lines. These cell lines are sometimes 30 or 40 years old. Because the cell lines are cultivated over the years, they no longer resemble the original cancer cells. Sleijfer’s research team will therefore be using liquid biopsies.

A liquid biopsy involves taking a blood sample from the patient. Using a method developed by Delft University of Technology, electric currents are sent through the blood sample. Because circulating tumor cells react differently than red and white blood cells, they can identify and extract the cancer cells. As a result, it is possible to get hold of tumor cells that are presumably much more representative of cancer cells in patients than cancer cell lines.


The tumor cells are then grown in a matrix, after which the various substances from the library are tested on them. The researchers study which substances cause the tumor cell to lose its ability to grow in the matrix. These substances could then also limit the potential of cells to metastasize.

After this, promising substances can be tested quickly and effectively in humans. ‘We already know from the substances in this library that they are safe and what dosage to use, which makes the final clinical application a lot easier,’ Sleijfer says.

Team science

For the research, the researchers will receive 750,000 euros from the ZonMW Open Competition program. The aim of this program was to stimulate collaboration between different research groups. Sleijfer and Erasmus MC Professor John Martens are therefore working together with Professor Peter ten Dijke of the LUMC and Dr Pouyan Boukany of TU Delft. By working collaboratively and across disciplines, this research project is a textbook example of convergence.