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Hitting cancer's self-destruct button

A Scottish scientist has identified an Achilles’ heel in cancer cells which could signify a global change in cancer treatment, and her groundbreaking research could lead to new treatment for particularly aggressive forms of the disease. University of Dundee scientist, Dr Barbara Spruce, has discovered a way of triggering cancer cells to self-destruct selectively without harming normal cells.…

Hitting cancer\'s self-destruct button

"The essence of our discovery is that cancer cells, through their selfish will to survive, have inadvertently burdened themselves with a vulnerability - an Achilles’ heel - whose sole means of protection seems to involve a pathway linked to opioids," Dr Spruce explains. "When we switch off this protective pathway, the apoptotic selfdestruct mechanism is unleashed in the cancer cells. But importantly, normal cells can tolerate this with no noticeable ill-effects."

The pioneering approach works by unleashing the process known as apoptosis, a natural self-defence mechanism which causes damaged cells to self-destruct. It is a defect in this process that contributes to most cancers and the goal of much current cancer research is to restore apoptosis in cancer cells without causing healthy cells to self-destruct at the same time.

Dr Spruce's research focuses on the sigma receptor, a molecule expressed by tumour cells and which causes them to resist the natural suicide programme. In effect, the sigma receptor is a  atural shield against the self-destruct mechanism of apoptosis. The particular class of drugs being researched by Dr Spruce and her team switch off the function of the sigma receptor, effectively dismantling the protective shield and unleashing natural self-destruction.

As well as being administered alone, the drugs can be used in combination with conventional therapies such as chemotherapy and radiotherapy, and evidence shows that this enhances the effect of the traditional treatment without enhancing the side effects. Significantly, because the new drug allows the traditional therapy to be administered in smaller, less toxic doses, the over all side effects of treatment are actually lessened

Tests on Dr Spruce's work bear out earlier evidence that the drugs may be particularly effective in treating tumours that don't respond well to traditional therapies. If the new treatment can be said to attack cancer's Achilles’ heel, it appears that the more aggressive the tumour, the greater its potential susceptibility to the new treatment. In recognition of her pioneering research, Dr Spruce was named winner of the inaugural Royal Society of Edinburgh Gannochy Trust Innovation Award in June 2003. At the awards dinner held at Scone Palace near Perth, Dr Spruce was presented with a gold medal and a cheque for £50,000 (approximately $92,000).

"What is vital about this award," explained Dr Spruce "is that the prize money will help us to take the next crucial steps towards testing these drugs in patients with cancer." Since receiving the award, support from the National Cancer Institute and their framework of scientists and institutes across the United States is helping to accelerate the process of taking Dr Spruce's research from bench to bedside. Some results are already patented and available from the UK Patent Office. Scientific publication is imminent and a journal reference will be added to the Science Scotland website as soon as it is available.

In the meantime, Dr Spruce continues the work she started nearly two decades ago when she was a practising endocrinologist. "At the time I was combining science with practising as a doctor but I became increasingly drawn to the science," says Dr Spruce. Cancer patients of the future may have cause to be glad of that.


"Hitting cancer\'s self-destruct button". Science Scotland (Issue One)
Printed from on 06/07/20 12:24:25 PM

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