Finding cancer's 'Achilles heel' may save lives

12 July, 2013

Research on mice has identified new treatment options for one of the most common cancers.

Clinical Associate Professor Gary Hoffman, of UWA's School of Pathology and Laboratory Medicine, worked with a worldwide team led by Professor Roland Rad of the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute in Cambridge UK, to discover the genetic processes that cause specific types of bowel cancer.

They identified cancer drugs that target these genes by pin-pointing the 'Achilles heel' of cancer. Their findings will enable cancer patients to have personalised treatment based on their unique genetic profile.

"More than one million people develop bowel cancer each year," Clinical Associate Professor Hoffman said.

"It is one of the most common causes of death in cancer patients. One in ten colon cancers is caused by mutations in the BRAF gene, which is commonly associated with skin cancers. Although successful treatments against BRAF mutations have been developed, these treatments have not been effective against BRAF mutations in colon cancer."

The researchers studied mice to find how genes cooperate to cause a specific subset of colon cancers. The team identified the culprits, the order in which they occur during tumour progression, and the molecular processes which turn relatively benign cell growth into threatening cancers.

A wide range of existing and candidate drugs were tested for their ability to slow or prevent growth of mouse colon cancer and human colon cancer cells. The researchers found several highly effective approaches which were tested individually or in combination to find the most powerful therapies.

"These are promising results for alternative second or third-line treatments after resistance to the first round of treatment occurs," Clinical Associate Professor Hoffman said.

The team's results illustrate the power of combining genetic information with large-scale drug screening to provide new targeted treatment strategies for patients with specific cancer subtypes.

This paper is the outcome of more than five years' work, and brought together a wide range of expert knowledge from several centres including the Technical University of Munich in Germany and medical departments in Spain.

The paper about this work was published yesterday in the journal Cancer Cell.