Protein breakthrough will lead to new cancer drugs
Posted Nov 21 2008 4:29pm
Scientists have discovered the protein structure responsible for nearly all human tumours. It is hoped the discovery will lead to better cancer drugs.
Telomerase protein allows the development of cancer cells. It has been the principle focus for scientists for more than a decade because of it’s role in the division of cancer cells: it allows cells to replace telomere structures – parts of DNA positioned at the end of gene-carrying chromosomes. As the telomerase becomes active, cancerous cells divide by the continuous regeneration of the protein, allowing the cancer to grow and spread.
Decoding telomerase will now give scientists a better chance of designing new therapies to kill tumours by essentially blocking the protein’s activity, whilst leaving healthy tissue unharmed. Leader of the research, Emmanuel Skordalakes from the Wistar Institute in Philadelphia said: “Telomerase is an ideal target for chemotherapy because it is active in almost all human tumours, but inactive in most normal cells.” He added: “A drug that deactivates telomerase would likely work against all cancers, with few side-effects.”
The discovery was made by using a gene from a red flour beetle to manufacture telomerase in large quantities. X-ray crystallography was then used to determine and identify structural components of its active region.
Current cancer drugs designed to inhibit telomerase activity have not been successful in clinical trials. The new discovery however will now accelerate cancer drug research into creating telomerase-inhibiting drugs which will block the protein, and destroy tumours.
Whether or not the development of a new cancer drug will become available on the NHS is questionable, with one in four cancer patients currently being denied access to the latest and most effective drugs that are otherwise available in other parts of Europe. 26% of over 2000 patients have been refused treatment over the past 20 months, crucially denying over 1,300 patients life-extending drugs across the country. Any new cancer drug developed on the back of the telomerase structure discovery would have to go through a lengthy process of trial and approval. The National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence (NICE) would have to assess the cost-effectiveness of the new therapy for both England and Wales. If approved, NHS trusts would then be able to offer the treatment, which would be an appropriate medication across many cancer types.
The regenerating quality of telomerase has also excited scientists in the possibility of developing treatment to slow the ageing process.
The research can be found in the international weekly journal of science, Nature.