Melbourne scientists say they have made a major breakthrough in the fight against several cancers, which could lead to new drugs to treat the disease.
Scientists at the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute say they have worked out how to suppress a protein which causes diseases including leukaemia and lymphoma.
The researchers say the finding may now lead to the development of medicines that mimic their approach.
Researchers have known for some time that a protein called MYC is not only present in the body’s healthy cells but also at high levels in about 70 per cent of all cancers.
For more than three decades scientists at the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute have been trying to work out how the protein flourishes in the body and drives cancer development.
They say they have found cancer cells rely on protein MCL-1 to live and if its growth can be stopped, the existing cancer cells could be killed off.
The institute’s Dr Gemma Kelly is one of the researchers working on the protein.
“We were interested to determine how these MYC-driven cancer cells stay alive because obviously this would help to identify targets in new drugs,” she said.
“What we’ve found is that we can kill the particular cancers, the lymphoma cells we were looking at, by disabling another protein called MCL-1.
“The way that we do it is genetically or using drug-mimicking tools in the lab, but what we would hope in the future is that there would be specific drugs or inhibitors that would target MCL-1 which could then be used in the clinic.
“Our research is focused on lymphomas and in particular we’ve done some work on a human lymphoma called Burkitt’s lymphoma.
“But we know that MYC is deregulated in, it can be up to 70 per cent of human cancers including other lymphomas, leukaemias and other cellular cancers.
“And so we would hope that our resources would be broadly applicable to these cancers as well. But this will be something that we can determine at a future point.”
Researchers killing cancer in 72 hours
Dr Kelly says one of the most exciting aspects of the team’s discovery is that the lymphoma cells they were experimenting with could be killed off within 24 to 72 hours.
It is hoped that success in the lab can now be turned into a treatment for cancer patients.
“We already know that there is a lot of interest into developing these particular types of drugs,” Dr Kelly said.
What we’ve found is that we can kill the particular cancers, the lymphoma cells we were looking, at by disabling another protein called MCL-1.
“We hope that in the next couple of years these will become available for us to test in our preclinical models and then this will go on to the next stage and go into clinical trials in patients,” Dr Kelly said.
There are concerns the side effects of some of the treatments may be quite severe but Dr Kelly says their strategy has potential.
“We have some of our own published data and from other people and what this really suggests is that our cancer cells, our lymphoma cells, seem to be more susceptible to inhibition of this protein MCL-1 than the normal healthy cells,” she said.
“And so this suggests to us that there can be this therapeutic window whereby we can kill off the cancer cells and maybe have more acceptable kind of side effects on the normal healthy cells.”
Australian leukaemia patients ‘would benefit from local trials’
The institute’s Professor Andreas Strasser says the development of new drugs has already begun, but clinical trials could still be a few years away.
“Some of us have already spoken at conferences about it and have had very positive feedback from clinicians, from other scientists and probably most importantly, people from pharmaceutical companies that are now even more interested than before,” he said.
“It depends very much how long it will take for chemists to generate compounds that can be tested (before clinical trials begin).
“Because this process is already in parallel happening, my loose prediction is two years, maybe three years.”
Australia’s Leukaemia Foundation is one of several organisations both here and overseas funding the research.
Its national manager of support services, Anthony Steele, says patients will be cautiously optimistic about the discovery.
“Some of our research coming out of Australia is the best in the world. We get lots of applications and it’s great to be able to find those gems that we’re able to fund,” he said.
“One of the things is that when these discoveries are made overseas and then clinical trial commence with the treatment for it, Australians don’t often get access to those clinical trials and therefore have a very delayed access to treatment.
“Whereas if the discoveries are found in Australia, it goes to trial in Australia, Australian patients who’ve got no other options get access to these new therapies very early and hopefully will lead to some very good outcomes.”
The research has been published in the journal Genes and Development.