TED2016

Laura Indolfi: Good news in the fight against pancreatic cancer

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Anyone who has lost a loved one to pancreatic cancer knows the devastating speed with which it can affect an otherwise healthy person. TED Fellow and biomedical entrepreneur Laura Indolfi is developing a revolutionary way to treat this complex and lethal disease: a drug delivery device that acts as a cage at the site of a tumor, preventing it from spreading and delivering medicine only where it's needed. "We are hoping that one day we can make pancreatic cancer a curable disease," she says.

- Biomedical entrepreneur
Laura Indolfi is revolutionizing cancer treatment with new technologies including implantable devices for delivering drugs locally to the site of a tumor. Full bio

By raising your hand,
00:13
how many of you know
at least one person on the screen?
00:15
Wow, it's almost a full house.
00:20
It's true, they are very famous
in their fields.
00:22
And do you know what
all of them have in common?
00:24
They all died of pancreatic cancer.
00:27
However, although it's very,
very sad this news,
00:30
it's also thanks to their personal stories
00:33
that we have raised awareness
of how lethal this disease can be.
00:35
It's become the third cause
of cancer deaths,
00:40
and only eight percent of the patients
will survive beyond five years.
00:43
That's a very tiny number,
00:49
especially if you compare it
with breast cancer,
00:50
where the survival rate
is almost 90 percent.
00:53
So it doesn't really come as a surprise
00:57
that being diagnosed
with pancreatic cancer
01:00
means facing an almost
certain death sentence.
01:02
What's shocking, though,
is that in the last 40 years,
01:05
this number hasn't changed a bit,
01:09
while much more progress has been made
01:11
with other types of tumors.
01:14
So how can we make pancreatic cancer
treatment more effective?
01:16
As a biomedical entrepreneur,
01:20
I like to work on problems
that seem impossible,
01:22
understanding their limitations
01:25
and trying to find new,
innovative solutions
01:27
that can change their outcome.
01:30
The first piece of bad news
with pancreatic cancer
01:32
is that your pancreas is in the middle
of your belly, literally.
01:35
It's depicted in orange on the screen.
01:38
But you can barely see it
01:41
until I remove all the other
organs in front.
01:43
It's also surrounded
by many other vital organs,
01:46
like the liver, the stomach,
the bile duct.
01:49
And the ability of the tumor
to grow into those organs
01:53
is the reason why pancreatic cancer
01:56
is one of the most painful tumor types.
01:58
The hard-to-reach location
also prevents the doctor
02:02
from surgically removing it,
02:05
as is routinely done
for breast cancer, for example.
02:07
So all of these reasons leave
chemotherapy as the only option
02:10
for the pancreatic cancer patient.
02:13
This brings us to the second
piece of bad news.
02:16
Pancreatic cancer tumors have
very few blood vessels.
02:19
Why should we care
about the blood vessel of a tumor?
02:23
Let's think for a second
how chemotherapy works.
02:27
The drug is injected in the vein
02:30
and it navigates throughout the body
until it reaches the tumor site.
02:32
It's like driving on a highway,
trying to reach a destination.
02:37
But what if your destination
doesn't have an exit on the highway?
02:41
You will never get there.
02:45
And that's exactly the same problem
02:47
for chemotherapy and pancreatic cancer.
02:49
The drugs navigate
throughout all of your body.
02:52
They will reach healthy organs,
02:55
resulting in high toxic effect
for the patients overall,
02:58
but very little will go to the tumor.
03:02
Therefore, the efficacy is very limited.
03:04
To me, it seems very counterintuitive
to have a whole-body treatment
03:08
to target a specific organ.
03:13
However, in the last 40 years,
03:15
a lot of money, research
and effort have gone towards
03:17
finding new, powerful drugs
to treat pancreatic cancer,
03:22
but nothing has been done
in changing the way
03:26
we deliver them to the patient.
03:28
So after two pieces of bad news,
03:32
I'm going to give you
good news, hopefully.
03:33
With a collaborator at MIT
03:37
and the Massachusetts
General Hospital in Boston,
03:39
we have revolutionized
the way we treat cancer
03:42
by making localized
drug delivery a reality.
03:44
We are basically parachuting you
on top of your destination,
03:48
avoiding your having to drive
all around the highway.
03:52
We have embedded the drug
into devices that look like this one.
03:55
They are flexible enough
that they can be folded
04:01
to fit into the catheter,
04:06
so the doctor can implant it
directly on top of the tumor
04:08
with minimally invasive surgery.
04:12
But they are solid enough
that once they are positioned
04:14
on top of the tumor,
04:18
they will act as a cage.
04:19
They will actually
physically prevent the tumor
04:21
from entering other organs,
04:24
controlling the metastasis.
04:26
The devices are also biodegradable.
04:30
That means that once in the body,
04:32
they start dissolving,
04:34
delivering the drug only locally,
slowly and more effectively
04:36
than what is done with the current
whole-body treatment.
04:41
In pre-clinical study,
we have demonstrated
04:45
that this localized approach
04:47
is able to improve by 12 times
the response to treatment.
04:50
So we took a drug that is already known
04:54
and by just delivering it locally
where it's needed the most,
04:57
we allow a response
that is 12 times more powerful,
05:01
reducing the systemic toxic effect.
05:04
We are working relentlessly to bring
this technology to the next level.
05:08
We are finalizing the pre-clinical testing
05:13
and the animal model required
prior to asking the FDA for approval
05:15
for clinical trials.
05:20
Currently, the majority of patients
will die from pancreatic cancer.
05:22
We are hoping that one day,
05:27
we can reduce their pain,
extend their life
05:29
and potentially make pancreatic cancer
05:33
a curable disease.
05:36
By rethinking the way we deliver the drug,
05:38
we don't only make it
more powerful and less toxic,
05:40
we are also opening the door
to finding new innovative solutions
05:44
for almost all other impossible problems
05:49
in pancreatic cancer patients and beyond.
05:52
Thank you very much.
05:55
(Applause)
05:56

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About the Speaker:

Laura Indolfi - Biomedical entrepreneur
Laura Indolfi is revolutionizing cancer treatment with new technologies including implantable devices for delivering drugs locally to the site of a tumor.

Why you should listen

Laura Indolfi is a biomedical entrepreneur, CEO and co-founder of PanTher Therapeutics, an early stage spin-out from MIT and MGH that provides superior technologies for revolutionizing the treatment of locally advanced inoperable solid tumors. Prior to this she served as an entrepreneur-in-residence at the MGH Cancer Center and as a research associate in the Harvard-MIT Institute for Medical Engineering and Science. She was selected as a TED Fellow in 2016.

Indolfi has broad professional experiences and interests ranging from biomedical engineering to entrepreneurship and outreaching initiative to promoting science. Her scientific expertise covers a broad range of therapeutic areas (cardio, cancer, inflammation, regenerative medicine) and approaches (drug delivery, cell therapy, implanted devices). Together with her strong technical background, Laura has hands-on business and managerial know-how developed during her biomedical business training at Sloan and Harvard Business Schools and with several consulting firms. She strongly believes in the power of outreach initiatives to promote research awareness and foster the public audience's discovery of the beauty of science. In 2014 the line of clothes Cytocouture, created in collaboration with Colombian designer Carlos Villamil and inspired by her cell-therapy research, won the global competition Descience.

Indolfi holds a MS/BS degree in materials science and engineering and a PhD in biomaterials from the University of Naples Federico II in Italy. Upon graduation, she joined the Harvard-MIT Division of health, science and technology, working on several projects spanning from devices for local drug delivery to tissue engineering approaches for cell therapies.

More profile about the speaker
Laura Indolfi | Speaker | TED.com