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Discovery of secret to a new class of blood cancer drugs aided by Foundation supporters

Publish Date: 25/2/2016

The Leukaemia Foundation is delighted a previous mystery ­– how a promising new class of anti-cancer drugs (called nutlins) work – has been solved, paving the way for improving future blood cancer treatment.

In early clinical trials, nutlins captured worldwide interest for their ability to stop blood cancer growth by activating the body’s natural cancer-suppressing mechanism – a gene called P53. This treatment  simultaneously avoided some of the damaging side-effects of chemotherapy.

But were the nutlins killing the cancerous cells, or just suppressing them temporarily? That was the great unknown.

Now a team of scientists at the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute, including two recipients of funding awarded under the Leukaemia Foundation’s National Research Program, have discovered that nutlins cause cancer cells to self-destruct. The research, published in the journal, Cell Reports, revealed that nutlins activated P53 to trigger programmed cell death (apoptosis) of blood cancer cells.

Dr Brandon Aubrey, who is in the final year of a three-year clinical PhD scholarship from the Leukaemia Foundation and is a clinical haematologist at the Royal Melbourne Hospital, said the discovery not only reinforced nutlins as a promising new treatment for blood cancer, it provided vital information for a more tailored approach to patient care.

“Our findings will help identify which patients are most likely to benefit from nutlins and which types of cancers are most likely to respond to nutlins as a treatment,” Dr Aubrey said. “Understanding in detail how the drugs work will help in the design of better clinical trials and bring the world closer to more precise and personalised medical treatments for cancer.”

Another member of the WEHI team, Dr Stephanie Grabow, is lead author of a second research paper, in Cell Reports, on the P53 tumour suppressor. She is in her third year of a post-doctoral fellowship; her second and third years funded by the Leukaemia Foundation’s generous supporters.

The Foundation’s Head of Research & Advocacy, Dr Anna Williamson, said this nutlin discovery is a good example of how studying the basic biology of healthy cells and cancer cells identifies new ways to treat cancer. 

“The Leukaemia Foundation has long recognised the value of understanding the basic biology of blood cancer in unraveling the mechanism of cancer development and thereby identifying new ways to treat, control and eradicate blood cancers.” Dr Williamson said.

Receiving no ongoing government funding, the Leukaemia Foundation’s work is only possible through its generous supporters, including the research community. 
This March, five researchers at the WEHI are taking part in the Leukaemia Foundation’s key annual fundraising event, World’s Greatest Shave.  Three of them have received grants from the Foundation; Margs Brennan and Dr Edward Chew (current Leukaemia Foundation PhD scholars) and Professor Andreas Strasser (a present and past supervisor of PhD students and post docs funded by the Leukaemia Foundation and a volunteer reviewer on the grants committees over many years). They are being joined by fewllow WEHI researchers, Joy Liu and Rachel Uren.

To help the Leukaemia Foundation continue supporting the work of world-class Australian blood cancer researchers, please sign up to shave or colour your hair for the World's Greatest Shave or simply make a general donation today. 

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