Discovery brings hope for new tailor-made anti-cancer agents

Researchers at the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute (WEHI) Melbourne have played a key role in developing a novel chemical compound which blocks a protein that has been linked to poor treatment responses in cancer patients.

The development of this compound is an important step towards designing a potential new anti-cancer agent, which will help to significantly reduce resistance to therapy.

The compound targets the function of a protein which prevents cells from dying.

Cell death is an important safeguard against cancer development, but once cancer cells start growing, they can produce high levels of this protein which prevents this natural process. This also reduces the effectiveness of chemotherapy and other anti-cancer treatments, and has been associated particularly with poorer outcomes in patients with lung, stomach, colon and pancreatic cancer.

Dr Guillaume Lessen (pictured) who co-led the study, together with Prof. Keith Watson and Prof. David Huang from the ACRF Chemical Biology Division at WEHI and colleagues Dr Peter Czabotar and Prof. Peter Colman, said:

“We were very excited to see the team’s work culminate in a compound that specifically inhibits the protein.”

“Although our compound is not yet fully optimised for use in patients, it will be a very valuable tool for researchers to dissect how this death inhibitor controls the prolonged survival of cancer cells,” he said.

The compound belongs to a new class of anti-cancer agents that targets this family of cell death inhibitor proteins. Two such similar compounds, called navitoclax (ABT-263) and ABT-199/GDC-0199, have been fully developed into drugs and are currently in clinical trials for the treatment of cancer, particularly those of the blood and lymph glands (leukaemias and lymphomas).

WEHI’s researchers, in collaboration with clinicians at the Royal Melbourne Hospital and the Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre are taking a leading part in these clinical trials.

The ACRF is thrilled to have supported the work of these leading research centres in Australia, particularly in funding the ACRF Chemical Biology Division at WEHI, which facilitated this latest compound development.