70% of cancer patients have new hope through WEHI discovery

A discovery led by Australian researchers at Melbourne’s Walter and Eliza Hall Institute (WEHI) has given new hope to those suffering from certain types of lymphomas as well as other types of blood cancers and some solid tumours.

For these types of cancers, which are driven by a cancer-causing protein, ‘MYC’, Dr Gemma Kelly, Dr Marco Herold, Professor Andreas Strasser and their research team at WEHI have uncovered a promising treatment strategy.

MYC affects up to 70 per cent of human cancers, including many leukaemias and lymphomas. It is responsible for cancerous changes in cells by forcing them into abnormally rapid growth. But the WEHI research team have discovered that MYC activity is co-dependent on another protein, called MCL-1.

Dr Kelly said, “We discovered that lymphoma cells with high levels of MYC can be killed by disabling a protein called MCL-1. Excitingly, when compared with healthy cells, the lymphoma cells were considerably more sensitive to a reduction in MCL-1 function.”

According to Dr Kelly this suggests, with further development, medicines that block MCL-1 could be effective in treating cancers expressing high levels of MYC with tolerable side-effects on the body’s normal cells.

MCL-1 is part of the ‘BCL-2 family’ – a family of proteins which regulate and motivate cancer development. They are pro-survival proteins.

Dr Kelly explained, “For many years we have known that proteins from the BCL-2 protein family enhance cell survival and cooperate with MYC to accelerate the development of cancer. Until now, it was not known which specific BCL-2 family protein was most important for the survival and growth of MYC-driven cancers.”

Professor Strasser said, “Anti-cancer agents that target the protein BCL-2, which is closely related to MCL-1, are already showing promise in clinical trials, including some held in Melbourne. We are hopeful that inhibitors of MCL-1 will soon become available for clinical testing. We will be very interested in determining whether these compounds could be used to treat MYC-driven cancers.”

With the protein MCL-1 being found at high levels in a number of blood cancers, and also many solid tumours, this discovery is very promising for many patients affected by these types of cancers. The Australian Cancer Research Foundation is dedicated to funding research which leads to better treatment outcomes for all types of cancer, and we are proud to have provided millions of dollars in funding to the team of researchers working at Melbourne’s WEHI.