WEHI researchers identify an exciting new approach to the treatment of stomach and bowel cancers

Melbourne researchers from the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute (WEHI) have identified a potential new drug target (a molecule called interleukin-11) for the treatment of bowel and stomach cancer, which are two of the most common cancers worldwide.

When a tumour develops in the stomach or bowel region, the normal (non-cancerous) tissues around it often becomes inflamed producing many different molecules, including two particular (related) cytokine molecules: interleukin-11 and interleukin-6.

Interleukin-6 has long been in the spotlight in terms of cancer research, as it is known to promote the spread of cancer cells. In fact, anti-cancer agents that block interleukin-6 are already in clinical trials for ovarian, kidney, prostate and breast cancers.

However, interleukin-11 has only been thought to have a minor role in the growth and spread of cancers.

WEHI researchers, Dr Tracy Putoczki and Associate Professor Matthias Ernst, have now investigated this ‘dark horse’ molecule, and its potential to be targeted in cancer treatment.

Dr Putoczki said, “Despite being very similar to interleukin-6, interleukin-11 has often been overlooked by cancer researchers. Our new research now shows that it might in fact be very important,” she said.

Dr Putoczki and Associate Professor Ernst discovered that blocking interleukin-11 in laboratory models of stomach and bowel cancers stopped tumour growth and could also lead to tumour shrinkage.

Associate Professor Ernst said the team had begun to explore how the discovery could be applied to potential new anti-cancer therapies.

He said, “Treating cancers with agents that block cytokine signalling is an exciting new approach that potentially has advantages over current treatment strategies.”

This discovery now paves the way for pre-clinical trials of agents that stifle interleukin-11 for bowel and stomach cancers.

The WEHI is one of Australia’s finest cancer research centres and ACRF is proud to be a significant financial supporter of the world-class research teams. Over the years, ACRF has provided $3.0 million direct to their own work and a further $5.0 million in their collaborative work with other research teams.