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26 Aug 2013

A breakthrough medical treatment that causes cancer cells to collapse in on themselves like a demolished building looks to be effective against every type of cancer cell and could be available in clinical trials as early as 2015.

A whole new class of drugs has been developed that, for the first time, targets the structure of the cancer cell.

It could lead to a new type of chemotherapy, which could have more positive outcomes for hard-to-treat cancers and have fewer long-term side-effects for survivors.

University of New South Wales researchers made the discovery while investigating the deadly childhood cancer neuroblastoma. In animals, they found that the treatment is also effective against melanoma in adults.

The results were published in the Cancer Research journal.

Lead study author, Professor Peter Gunning the Head of the Oncology Research Unit in the UNSW School of Medical Sciences, said the drug appeared to work against every type of cancer cell.

“It is much like what happens when you see a building collapse on the TV news,” Professor Gunning said.

“Our drug causes the structure of the cancer cell to collapse – and it happens relatively quickly.We’ve been surprised and excited by the potential of this treatment.”

Dr Justine Stehn, the first author on the paper, also from the Oncology Research Unit, said that attacking the architecture of the cancer cell has long been an obvious target.

“But until now, attempts have failed because the building blocks of the structure of the cancer cell are also used to build the heart and muscle, so the toxicity was unacceptable,” she said.

However, the team recognised there was a second “building block”, the protein tropomyosin, in the cancer cell structure that was sufficiently different from those in the heart and muscle, which could be safely targeted.

Toxicity had been a major stumbling block in earlier research, making possible funders scarce. Professor Gunning paid tribute to The Kids’ Cancer Project for its financial support.

Kids’ Cancer Project CEO Peter Neilson said the results of the research would have far-reaching consequences.

“This research opens up a door on something the pharmaceutical industry and science gave up on 25 years ago,” he said.

“We will continue to invest in this and we are determined to see it going into clinical trials in children with hard-to-treat neuroblastoma. Normally, it would go into adults and it would take 7 to 8 years to be trialled in kids.”

The first clinical trials are expected in 2015.

Dean of UNSW Medicine, Professor Peter Smith, who is also Chair of the Research Advisory Committee of The Kids’ Cancer Project, said research was crucial for finding new ways of tackling childhood cancer.

“Cancer in children is not the result of lifestyle issues, so you’re relying on medical research to see any improvement in survival rates,” Professor Smith said.

Childhood cancer is the single greatest cause of death from disease in Australian children, with three children a week dying from the condition.

“In the 1960s, less than 10 per cent of children survived cancer and now it’s 80 per cent,” he said.

The research project was also supported by the National Health and Medical Research Council, the Cancer Council NSW, the Cancer Institute NSW and the Office for Health and Medical Research, NSW Ministry of Health.

Debra Vermeer

Published: 26 Aug 2013