The HERCULES project (www.project-hercules.eu) focuses on the most common and most difficult to treat subtype of ovarian cancer, high-grade serous ovarian cancer. These tumours consist of several heterogeneous cell populations with a large number of mutations. This genetic variability of the tumours makes it difficult to find drugs that would be able to kill all the cancer cells and to which some of the cells would not become resistant during treatment.
‘Even though most patients respond well to current treatments initially, more than half of them experience relapse. In Europe alone, more than 40,000 women die of ovarian cancer every year,’ says Professor Sampsa Hautaniemi, co-ordinator of the project.
In the HERCULES project, the tumours are analysed in an unprecedented level of detail to discover which cell populations the tumours consist of, how they respond to treatments and what makes them resistant to treatments. Patient samples are used to study the function of genes and proteins at a single-cell level by using the latest mass cytometry, sequencing and computational methods.
The researchers aim to find an optimal set of biomarkers that can be used to identify different cell populations from tissue samples. Fresh tissue samples and cell lines will be used to study the tumour cells’ response to several drug compounds. The results from these experiments will be used in computational modelling and development of computational tools to predict which drug compounds will target each cell population best.
‘Based on this information, the aim is to develop a test that can be used to predict which drug combinations will be most efficient against an individual patient’s cancer,’ Hautaniemi says. The results of the project will help doctors to find the best treatments to each ovarian cancer patient.