Otago researchers identify drugs to beat hereditary cancers

REVOLUTIONARY: Otago University Professor Parry Guilford says researchers have identified drugs that could successfully ...
Alan Dove

REVOLUTIONARY: Otago University Professor Parry Guilford says researchers have identified drugs that could successfully treat or even prevent deadly familial stomach and lobular breast cancers

Two decades after a gene causing deadly familial cancer first emerged, University of Otago researchers have found a potential cure.

Led by Professor Parry Guilford, cancer genetics researchers have identified drugs that could successfully treat or even prevent deadly familial stomach and lobular breast cancers by targeting specific genetic mutations. 

The treatment is revolutionary in its approach. Rather than trying to combat cancer strengths, the drugs prey on its weaknesses, Guilford said. 

* READ MORE: Healthy man has stomach removed

"Cancer cells acquire a mutation in their DNA which help them grow and invade neighbouring tissues," he said.

"These mutations can create a weakness in those cells, like an Achilles heel. If you can find that, you can target it. That's what we've done here. We've found the Achilles heel in this type of cancer."

The aim was to prevent cancer from developing in high risk families, such as that of Kimi Hauora Trust Manager Maybelle McLeod, who originally contacted the University and Guilford in 1994 to seek help in discovering the cause of the disease ravaging her Bay of Plenty family. 

Despite folklore that a curse had been placed on the family, they realised all the evidence - including very early onset of the condition - indicated the cancer was being caused by a genetic condition.

Guilford estimated another 350 families worldwide were in the same category.

Identified high risk families have about a 70 per cent chance of getting stomach cancer, and the women have about a 40 per cent chance of getting breast cancer, he said.

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Currently the only treatment for those carrying the gene was to surgically remove the stomach or breast tissue as a preventative measure.

"The genetic mutation we're targeting is also found in sporadic forms of those cancers as well. So if we get the drugs working very effectively we could also apply them to advanced sporadic cancers, too," Guilford said.

The drugs have shown to be effective, and the next step was to ensure their safety.

"We've got another three years of work in the lab to select the best drug from this class, the one which is the safest and most efficient, and then we can take it to clinical trials."

Guilford anticipated the drug would be taken every two to four years and would kill off the "very, very early stages" of cancer.

McLeod said the findings were "very exciting". 

"The only choice at the moment for those of us at genetic risk is to undergo drastic surgery, and having your stomach removed is a hard thing to bite.

"This latest research holds out a new hope for a gentler way to save the lives of our affected whanau members."

The researchers' finding appeared in the US journal Molecular Cancer Therapeutics.

 - Stuff

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