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Our team`s cancer discovery

Al Musella's Comments: (This is his personal views and are not necessarily the views of the Musella Foundation!)


Posted on: 02/09/2003

Our team's cancer discovery



VICTORIAN scientists have beaten the world to a breakthrough that will lead to a new generation of cancer drugs.

The discovery has created such excitement overseas that 15 top researchers will arrive in Melbourne next month for a conference on the treatment. Researchers at federally funded Co-operative Research Centre found a way to "turn off" a molecule that causes cells to become cancerous.

The team was led by Professor Tony Burgess of the Ludwig Institute and included CSIRO's Dr Colin Ward and Tom Garrett, of the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute.

The new class of anti-cancer drugs will be developed in Melbourne and available worldwide in about two years. They will be better, safer, act faster and be more specific to a particular disease.

The drugs will be able to treat all major cancers.

Professor Burgess said the new treatment was not a cure for cancer.

"The discovery will help understand why some cells develop cancer," he said. "In the next two years, it will also lead to a new class of anti-cancer drug that can target a particular cell and shut it down when it starts to function abnormally."

The results of the discovery have been published in the science journal Cell.

The three-day Melbourne conference was convened to allow the scientists to "compare notes".

"We have known for about 20 years that most major cancers have mistakes in their genes," Professor Burgess said. "These make the cells more sensitive to special hormones and a particular receptor, or key, can activate a cancer cell.

"Lung and colon cancers, brain tumours, all have this cycle going on - a vicious circle.

"We didn't know how to target this specific receptor to turn if off. That was the 'holy grail'."

Professor Burgess said there was much luck in science and the success of the Melbourne team was very simple, in the end.

"Most teams were looking at the whole receptor," he said. "We decided to look at one small section and it all turned out like clockwork.

"The smaller part gave us a clue about how the whole receptor worked. We were lucky."

The team worked on a particular receptor called the EGF (epidermal growth factor).

They believe the discovery will help develop a cancer drug that will be more effective and less toxic in treating the disease.

"Now we can be very selective, in aiming at the cancer cell and in selecting the best treatment," Professor Burgess said.

He said the method would soon be used to treat all major cancers.

"The next step is to identify and test new classes of cancer drugs and this will also be carried out in Melbourne," he said.

"It will cost several million dollars to go to the next stage, but we have that money, through federal funding, through the Ludwig Institute, the CSIRO and the Walter and ELiza Hall Institute."

He said there was interest from the pharmaceutical industry once a drug was available and working.

"We are confident that we can do that in Melbourne," he said.

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