Belfast researchers find new way to 'starve' cancer cells


RESEARCHERS IN Belfast have come up with a new way to kill off cancer cells – one that starves the cancer to death. Announced by Queen’s University Belfast this morning, the discovery could be tested in human trials in as little as 12 months.

Prof Tracy Robson’s research group in Queen’s school of pharmacy made the initial discovery, finding a substance that could block the development of a blood supply needed to help a tumour grow.

Tumours send out chemical signals to encourage the growth of blood vessels, but the natural human protein discovered by Prof Robson interferes with this process.

Without a good blood supply the cancer cells cannot divide and grow.

The protein does not target the tumour cells, only the blood vessels it tries to grow, said Prof Robson, who heads the experimental therapeutics research group.

Her findings are in the current edition of Clinical Cancer Research, a journal of the American Association for Cancer Research.

Once the protein and the gene that produces it were identified, she and her team established what part of the protein had the ability to block blood vessel development.

At this point her group joined with Almac Discovery Ltd, a Craigavon, Co Armagh-based company that develops cancer treatments.

The university and Almac then began breaking down the protein, isolating the part that can block blood vessel development.

“Essentially it stops the blood vessels from developing,” Prof Robson said. It works against newly forming vessels and not vessels already in place.

For this reason she expects that any treatment using her discovery would be given in tandem with conventional chemotherapy.

A substance developed by Queen’s and Almac has already undergone testing in mice and proved “highly effective” in models for prostate and breast cancers.

“However, this also has the potential for the treatment of any solid tumour,” Prof Robson said.

She believes that a new therapy could begin drug trials in as little as a year, its rapid move to testing possible because it is based on a natural human protein.

There are existing drugs such as Avastin that also block development of a tumour’s blood supply but these are based on interfering with growth factors, she said.

Her approach is different and blocks the cells as they attempt to form blood vessels. For this reason it provides a very useful complement if other approaches do not work well.

“Our drug would be very useful in patients who don’t respond well to Avastin,” she said.