Accidental results excite breast cancer researchers

In In The News by Barbara Jacoby

LLH network pressFrom: Newcastle Herald

A drug that was originally developed in Newcastle to kill parasites in meat and livestock is instead proving to be a potent weapon against breast cancer.

It has been four years since Dr Jennette Sakoff, lab researcher at Calvery Mater Hospital, embarked on a project with the intention that it would help agriculture.

She never imagined it would instead show all the signs of becoming a targeted killer of breast cancer cells – completely ignoring the healthy breast tissue.

“It failed miserably at killing the parasites,” Dr Sakoff said.

“It is definitely a bit of serendipity – they were never designed to target cancer.

“We screen a lot of molecules in our research lab and that’s when we noticed.”

Today in Australia, research has brought the five-year survival rate for breast cancer to about 89per cent.

But on average, seven women in the country died each day from the disease, according to the Australian Institute of Health, Welfare and Cancer.

Dr Sakoff, part of the Hunter Medical Research Institute, said the drug held new hope for those living with advanced or metastatic (where the cancer reappears elsewhere) breast cancer.

“This may now actually offer an extra treatment, particularly for advanced tumours that have spread.

“Also, if someone becomes resistant to treatment options, it is that extra tool in the box.”

Because the compounds were so selective in what they destroyed, Dr Sakoff said the drug could also have fewer side effects.

“Part of our drug discovery component is that some new molecules have been found to specifically kill breast cancer cell lines but do little to nothing in other tumour types,” Dr Sakoff said.

“You get this nice selectivity that targets breast cancer cell lines.

“We don’t know how they are doing it; at the moment it’s an observation and we’re trying work out how the molecules do it.

“Its selectiveness is a good thing because you are likely to have fewer side effects.

“It also shows that there is something selective and unique about breast cancer.”

Dr Sakoff said research was currently up to the early animal testing stage and so far, it had been tolerated well.

“It’s still in its very early stages of research,’’ she said.

‘‘But, if everything goes to plan, it has the potential to have huge significance.”

Another HMRI researcher has been making huge progress in a study that looks at stopping breast cancer from spreading.

Dr Nikki Verrills, from the University of Newcastle, has been looking at how a certain gene is switched off in breast cancer.

“We still don’t know whether this [the gene switching off] is primary or secondary to cancer,” she said.

“The gene’s normal role is to stop cells continuously dividing.”

Dr Verrills said they were looking at whether turning the gene back on would be beneficial for those with metastatic breast cancer.

“It seems to stop the movement of cells from one place to the other,” she said.