New precision drugs to tackle cancer cell weak spots

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Researchers have identified weak spots in cancer cells that could be targeted and attacked by new precision cancer drugs.

According to scientists, the findings could lead to personalised medicine that “reads” a cancer patient’s DNA and only attacks defective cells. Conventional chemotherapy works with a “scattergun” approach, attacking all dividing cells, including healthy ones.

A major computational analysis by scientists at the University of Sussex and The Institute of Cancer Research (ICR), London, found a number of potential targets for drugs that are able to attack the inherent weaknesses of cancer cells. The research was published in the journal Nature Reviews Cancer.

A team of scientists, jointly led by Dr Frances Pearl and Dr Bissan Al-Lazikani, studied more than 5,000 cancer patients and analysed the patterns of mutations found in the DNA sequences of tumours.

The team focused on analysing the “DNA repair” systems that protect the genetic information of the cell and are mutated in almost all cancers. When these systems for DNA repair are broken, it allows cancer cells to uncontrollably divide and generate even more mutations, helping them to become resistant to chemotherapy and radiation treatments.

One class of drug called PARP inhibitors already target DNA repair systems. These are being used in clinical trials to treat women with breast or ovarian cancers that have mutations in BRCA genes. One of the class, olaparib, has recently been licensed for women with ovarian cancer in Europe and the US.

Dr Pearl said: “This analysis shows that there are many other cancers where new targeted drugs could selectively kill tumours with DNA repair defects.”

Professor Tony Carr, director of the University of Sussex’s genome damage and stability centre, said: “The more we discover, the more intelligent our weapons against cancer become, and the closer we get to the day when cures for this major killer will be found.”