February 29, 2024

Fighting metastatic cancer with the help of sharks

Reseracher with a small shark in a tank
Aaron LeBeau, associate professor in the Department of Pathology and Laboratory Medicine at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, feeds nurse sharks pieces of squid in his research lab. (Photo by Bryce Richter / UW-Madison)

It seems unusual to think of sharks coming to a person’s rescue, but Dr. Aaron LeBeau hopes his finned research partners will provide life-saving options for patients whose cancer has spread throughout their body.

LeBeau, a UW Carbone Cancer Center researcher, studies how shark antibodies, or proteins that keep the body healthy, may be used in humans to guide imaging and treatment of metastatic cancers. At this advanced stage of cancer, cancer cells have spread throughout the body and are much more resistant to available treatments. Being cured at a metastatic stage is rare—treatments can help prolong a patient’s life, but the disease continues to progress.

The six nurse sharks that aid his team live on campus and happily dine on seafood. Nurse sharks were chosen because their antibodies held the most promise for success, and the name is a fitting coincidence.

LeBeau takes a closer look at each different antibody type in the shark’s immune system to see how effective it would be at grabbing onto cancer cells. Once they identify good matches, those antibodies can be upgraded to find all cancer cells throughout a patient’s body and deliver a precision treatment right to those cells.

“We isolate the antibodies and engineer them to attack human cancer,” he said.

LeBeau’s team carefully catalogs their findings in a library that allows them to review hundreds of different antibody types and see how well they match to unique features of different types of cancer cells.

“It’s all about probability—the bigger the library, the higher the probability that we find something that sticks to the cancer target,” according to LeBeau.

He is currently focused on prostate, breast and lung cancers, but this approach has the potential to treat patients with any type of metastatic cancer. His team also uses this same approach with a library of antibodies they sampled from llamas, who like sharks also have more flexibility in how their antibodies can be used.

LeBeau is hopeful that this research can be ready for clinical trials in as little as five years. His research is supported through the Andy North and Friends Fund, as well as UW Carbone’s Innovation Fund.

“What excites me is that every day in the lab is different,” he said. “We find new things every day, and discovery is very exciting to me.”