Scientists are perfecting a new anti-cancer treatment that exploits the body’s own cellular waste disposal system. Some drugs are already producing promising results, and the number of new medicines is expected to rise in the near future with the opening of a British centre dedicated to using the technique.
Fifteen researchers will work at the Centre for Protein Degradation which has been set up through a £9m donation to the Institute of Cancer Research, in London, by philanthropists David and Ruth Hill.
Many modern cancer drugs work by blocking the function of harmful proteins, said Professor Ian Collins, head of the new centre. However, this technique is different, he added. It wipes them out completely.
“Our cells have evolved a highly efficient technique for removing harmful proteins. It’s part of the everyday business of life. However, our cells’ protein degradation processes only recognise a specific number of proteins.
“Science has now found a way to add to that number – to put flags on to new proteins that the cell wouldn’t otherwise touch but which we now realise are harmful and involved in tumour development.
“We are saying to our cells: please can you add this harmful protein to the trash that you are taking out?” An early example of this approach is provided by the protein degradation drug lenalidomide, which is used to treat the blood cancer myeloma, and which has been shown to improve patients’ quality of life.
“I’d never even heard the word myeloma,” said Cecelia Brunott, 45, from Farnham in Surrey, who was diagnosed in 2020. “Today it is working to keep my condition stable and keep my myeloma in check for longer.”
Collins said drugs like lenalidomide could pinpoint a molecule that would otherwise continue to carry out its function in promoting cancer. “Essentially, it makes it visible to the cell’s waste disposal machinery. It flags it up for disposal and ensures it is shredded and destroyed.”
A similar type of drug has also been found to target breast cancer. Known as a selective oestrogen receptor degrader, it degrades a protein that is an important driver of breast cancer.
“At present, much effort is concentrating on using protein degradation to develop new cancer drugs,” added Collins.
“However, we hope that in future this technique will be used to develop medicines for tackling other types of disease. It has powerful potential and promise.”