U of A researchers discover new drug that could revolutionize cancer treatment

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Scientists at the University of Alberta have discovered a new class of drugs that they say could be the next big step in treating cancer.

The newly discovered drug works by preventing resistant cancer cells from repairing their own DNA which is damaged through traditional treatments like radiation therapy and chemotherapy.

“For patients with resistant cancer, this drug could rescue them by rendering their cancer once again treatable,” Fred West, chemistry professor and co-director of the Cancer Research Institute of Northern Alberta said.

West worked on the project with several other U of A-based researchers, including oncology professors Jack Tuszynski and Michael Weinfeld.

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The drug was developed after it was discovered the DNA repair enzymes in cancer cells were essentially making tumors stronger after they reacted to treatment like chemotherapy.

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“When people are treated with these [traditional cancer] drugs, with time the tumors start becoming resistant,” West said “[The cancer cells] start making more of these enzymes that repair the DNA damage.

“So if we can go in and block those enzymes, then these resistant tumors will once again become receptive to the chemotherapy.”

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The new compound used in the drug inhibits the interaction of a protein pair called ERCC1-XPF that is responsible for repairing DNA in cancer cells.

“For patients who have not developed resistance, it could permit the use of lower, safer doses of chemotherapy, which would greatly reduce the serious side effects,” West said.

Currently the research team is focusing on colorectal and lung cancer, but hope to eventually expand the drug to other cancers.

The drugs still needs to be tested on “model organisms” before it is tested in human clinical trials. So far, they’ve been tested on cells alone. A model organism is a non-human species that laboratories use to help understand biological processes.

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“A compound that works in cells that are grown in culture may not work in a complex organism,” West said. “There might be unexpected toxicity, because it’s targeting more than one place in the animal. Another might be, maybe it gets metabolized too quickly and it never reaches the tumor that it’s supposed to be targeting.”

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The research team has already fled a provisional patent application and is working towards pre-clinical studies as soon as next year.

West said his team is also in touch with pharmaceutical companies, but that more testing needs to be done before a partnership is formed.

The project was funded in part by a $2.9-million grant from the Alberta Cancer Foundation.

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