Research led by Irish scientists exposes ‘Achilles heel’ in over 700 cancer cells

Discovery of vulnerabilities could help combat cancers with new drugs, says Queen’s University Belfast team

Thousands of weaknesses known as "Achilles heels" have been identified in more than 700 different cancer cell types by researchers at Queen's University Belfast.

The discovery of the “cancer vulnerabilities”, using DNA technology and computer analysis of large volumes of genetic data, could lead to new ways to stop cancer cells in their tracks.

This could be done by using existing drugs as well as generating potentially new targets for drug development through enhanced “precision oncology”, they say.

These drugs could even be used to combat cancers that are resistant to the current standard treatments, according to the researchers, whose findings have been published in the journal Nucleic Acids Research.

"Understanding the molecular fingerprints of cancer can pinpoint ways to target drugs precisely to those patients where they will be most effective. Our work makes a step towards more effective and personalised cancer treatments, ultimately saving lives," explained Dr Ian Overton, who is based at the Patrick G Johnston Centre for Cancer Research at Queen's.

Cancers usually have many mutations which can cause genetic weak spots or “Achilles heels”. For example, cancers frequently become more dangerous by mutating to stop some protective genes called tumour suppressors leaving the tumour reliant upon a back-up gene.

‘Chemical hammer’

“Hitting the back-up gene with a ‘chemical hammer’ can therefore kill the cancer cells,” Dr Overton said.

This research programme has identified thousands of back-up genes in more than 700 different kinds of cancer cell types, providing the intelligence to design more effective treatments against cancer.

They have made their results available through a special genomics web server, opening a window to share these rich resources with researchers across the scientific community with a view to accelerating progress in cancer research.

Mark Wappett, head of bioinformatics at Almac Discovery at Queen's, who led the research, said: "Our results provide the wider scientific community access to key datasets generated by cutting edge technologies, and a toolkit with which to analyse this data. Ultimately, we hope that, by increasing the reach of this data we can expedite more targeted and effective cancer treatments."

Dr Simon McDade, of the functional genomics group at Queen’s, confirmed the resource was set to ultimately benefit cancer patients.

“This research represents an important resource for researchers worldwide to extract invaluable data from functional genomics screens,that has potential to translate to significant benefits for cancer patients in the long term.”

The project was a collaboration between Queen's and Vanderbilt University in the US.