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Newcastle scientist tells Minister of new cancer hope

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by Cancer Research UK | News

6 November 2002

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Understanding how prostate cancers become resistant to treatment should bring about a new breed of potent anti-cancer drugs, a leading Cancer Research UK scientist will tell Health Secretary Alan Milburn, MPs and fellow researchers.

At a conference in Westminster1, Dr Vincent Gnanapragasam – from the Prostate Research Group at the University of Newcastle upon Tyne – will explain details of his work on the disease.

Dr Gnanapragasam’s research focuses on how prostate cancers rely on hormones to grow and spread. Many current drugs target the reliance of cancer cells on hormones, and his work may help in making these treatments more effective.

As with breast cancer, hormones often drive prostate cancer’s growth. Drugs to block the action of particular hormones called androgens are used to treat advanced cases of the disease and are effective in many cases. But 70 per cent of men who initially respond to anti-hormone treatment will suffer recurrence from their disease within two years, as cancer cells develop resistance to treatment.

Dr Gnanapragasam says: “Drugs that target hormones are currently the only available treatments for men with advanced prostate cancer and if these drugs fail the outlook for patients is poor.

“It’s therefore crucial to develop new classes of drugs working in new and innovative ways, in order to attack prostate cancers that have become resistant to conventional treatment.”

Dr Gnanapragasam, working in Newcastle with colleagues Prof Hing Leung and Dr Craig Robson, who are also funded by Cancer Research UK, has made important progress in understanding exactly how hormones cause cancer cells to grow. His work may lead to more effective means of disrupting the process.

He has found that cancer cells often switch on a molecule called FGF8 in response to hormones. If this stays switched on, it may help cancer cells to lose their reliance on hormone molecules.

Cancer cells also switch on molecules called co-activators, which make cancer cells more sensitive to the effects of hormones. Less hormone molecules are then needed for the cells to grow, potentially also helping cells to become resistant to anti-hormone treatment.

Dr Gnanapragasam adds: “By switching on certain molecules, cancer cells may compensate for the fact that their hormone systems have been knocked out by the effects of treatment.

“But drugs to the block the effects of these helper molecules could be effective ways of stripping cancer cells of their drug resistance. Such drugs could finally give us alternative methods of treating advanced forms of prostate cancer, giving hope to some of the 9,500 men who currently die from the disease each year.”

Dr Richard Sullivan, Cancer Research UK’s Head of Clinical Programmes, says: “Dr Gnanapragasam’s work is providing some exciting leads as we look for new ways of tackling the disease, which is becoming increasingly common.

“His presentation to the Health Secretary and other MPs should also help to raise the profile of prostate cancer and may persuade the Government of the need for more investment in its treatment.”


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