Starving cells could treat one of Australia’s deadliest diseases

Australia has the highest rate of melanoma, globally. It is the deadliest form of skin cancer, and is the third most common cancer type in Australia.

But Australian researchers at the Centenary Institute have bought hope to this statistic through the discovery that we could potentially treat, and even cure, melanoma by cutting off its food source.

Last year the same team of researchers, led by Professor Jeff Holst, showed they could starve prostate cancer cells. This discovery has opened up the prospect of a class of drugs that could treat a range of cancers, including melanoma, in the same way.

Researcher have previously found that some cancer cells rely on the amino acid glutamine instead of glucose (which is what normal cells use for fuel) for the energy required to divide, grow and feed their rapid growth. These cancer cells use pump like structures on their surface to absorb the glutamine.

New research recently published in the International Journal of Cancer has found that not only do melanoma cells have more glutamine pumps on their surface, but blocking these pumps halts their growth.

“We’ve shown that if we starve melanoma of these essential nutrients, we can stop the cancer from growing,” said Dr Holst.

Although often curable if detected early, melanoma is one of the most difficult cancers to treat once it has spread because it rapidly develops resistance to known therapies.

However, according to Dr Holst, this newly targeted discovery has the potential to generate a new and different approach to current treatments.

Pre-clinical trials have shown that blocking the protein pumps that move glutamine into tumour cells successfully slows down the cancer growth.

Dr Holst hopes a targeted treatment compound can be developed and tested within five to 10 years.