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  • Australian scientists have developed a new drug that can put cancer cells to sleep permanently

    Author: AAP

A new type of drug that puts cancer cells to "sleep" has been discovered by Australian scientists, raising hopes that it could one day be a powerful new weapon in fighting the deadly disease.

The world-first discovery could potentially give cancer patients an alternative to radiotherapy and chemotherapy, which can often have debilitating side effects including nausea, hair loss and fatigue.

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After a decade's worth of research, the scientists developed a drug to target two specific proteins responsible for driving several types of cancer.

Lead researcher, Associate Professor Tim Thomas, says pre-clinical studies show the drug is effective at putting blood and liver cancer cells into a permanent "sleep" without damaging any healthy cells.

"One of the things we are quite excited about is that we expect there will be fewer side effects with this type of treatment because it's a specific treatment and won't affect all the cells in the body," Assoc Prof Thomas, of the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute in Melbourne, told AAP.


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Assoc Prof Thomas and a team of his colleagues from the institute worked on on developing the new treatment along with scientists from Monash University, Cancer Therapeutics CRC, the University of Melbourne, Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre and CSIRO.

They screened a quarter of a million chemical compounds to find one that could be developed into being highly effective in targeting the proteins known as KAT6A and KAT6B, both of which are known to drive several cancers.

The drug works by stopping the proteins from mutating and causing cancer cells to grow.

It induces a natural bodily process known as senescence, which is when cells stop dividing and growing but don't die.

By inducing senescence in cancer cells, they can't grow in their usual unrestrained fashion and are instead effectively put to "sleep".

"If you have a rapidly growing cancer it's certainly better to have the cells put to sleep than continue to grow," Assoc Prof Thomas said.

"In our laboratory models we have tested this quite extensively and found that the cells we put to sleep, or become senescent, haven't woken up again."

Assoc Prof Thomas says the new drug compares well to chemotherapy and radiotherapy as it specifically targets cancer cells, whereas the other two traditional treatments also damage healthy cells while killing off cancerous ones.

He says the next step is for the scientific team to find industry partners to develop their compound into a pill for clinical trials among cancer patients.

"I think the future of cancer treatments is to be able to target specific types of cancer ... and have specific treatments rather than general treatments," he said.

"So this would fit very much into a specific treatment for certain types of cancer but not all types of cancer."

Details of the research by Assoc Prof Thomas and his team were published in the journal Nature on Thursday.


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