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F R O M the B E N C H

A new approach to f ighting cancer?
Cancer touches one in three Australians and despite medical advances, continues to be a significant killer. It is not the emergence of a tumour itself however, that kills most cancer victims, but the fact that the tumour has spread and attacked a vital organ. So what causes tumours to proliferate and how can they be prevented from spreading? Professor Philip Hogg and his team from the Centre for Vascular Research are currently developing a new early-stage cancer detection process and a treatment that aims to stop tumours in their tracks, so that cancer can be treated as a manageable disease rather than a terminal one. Tumours start life as a series of mutations in a cell. The mutant cell divides, forming a small tumour about the size of a poppy seed which then signals a nearby blood vessel, instructing it to sprout new vessels that invade the tumour and allow it to grow. The process of new blood vessel formation, or angiogenesis, occurs when the endothelial cells lining an existing blood vessel are activated to migrate and divide. “Because tumour cells proliferate so rapidly there is often not enough oxygen around to sustain the older cells and they die,” said Professor Philip Hogg. “We’re exploring a biochemical compound we designed that seeks out and binds to dying cancer cells and will hopefully allow for imaging even the smallest of tumours. This will mean we can detect cancer earlier. “We have also been developing a synthetic compound called GSAO that reacts with a particular arrangement of amino acids in proteins. We realised that the compound stops new blood vessels being formed in tumours without affecting existing blood vessels. It does this by turning off the power supply of the endothelial cells that are making new blood vessels.” UNSW staff, in collaboration with Unisearch, are currently investigating the compound’s drug potential, and the results have been encouraging. The first phase of the project’s clinical trials will commence this year with a small group of end-stage cancer patients. The second phase will take up to 18 months, in which different ways of administering the compound will be tested. If the first two phases are successful, a third multinational phase will be initiated and will depend on further funding from venture capital or pharmaceutical companies. The entire project is expected to last five years. Currently, the most common cancer therapy is chemotherapy, which presents numerous problems that GSAO will hopefully overcome. Chemotherapy uses toxic drugs that attempt to kill cancerous cells, but can also kill healthy cells, which is harmful for the patient. There are also some cancers that don’t respond to chemotherapy because of the type of mutation that started the cancer, or because the tumour cells are inaccessible to drugs. Also, some tumours are able to adapt quickly and can become insensitive or resistant to chemotherapy. “Apart from during menstruation, or when a wound is healing, the process of new blood vessel formation usually only happens when tumours grow,” said Philip Hogg. “GSAO is designed to kill the cells that make new blood vessels, without affecting normal blood vessels. Because new blood vessel formation is a process that all tumours rely on for growth, we hope GSAO will be effective for all cancer types, regardless of where the tumour is formed.” These two projects have received interest from leading pharmaceutical companies as they both represent unique approaches to cancer diagnosis and therapy. “We still have many hurdles to overcome”, said Philip Hogg, “but we hope our efforts will help in the early detection and treatment of cancer.”

FUNDING UNSW, National Health & Medical Research Council, Australian Research Council, Cancer Council NSW and Australian Cancer Research Foundation

FOR INFORM ATION CONTACT Pr ofe s s o r Ph i l i p H o g g at p.h o g g @ unsw.e d u. au