Targeting a gene known as ‘the guardian of the genome’ may bring a new generation of treatments for children’s cancers, a leading Cancer Research UK scientist claims.
Sir David Lane, who is based at the University of Dundee, believes treatments that restore the gene’s ability to guard against cancer could be more effective, with fewer side effects, than conventional therapies.
Sir David is giving the 25th Anniversary lecture at a conference1 organised by the UK Children’s Cancer Study Group (UKCCSG) – the network of childhood cancer specialists funded by Cancer Research UK.
Known as p53, the guardian of the genome was discovered by Sir David and is crucial for protecting cells from the effects of DNA damage. It also makes sure that any cells showing signs of turning cancerous die before they can cause any trouble.
Losing the protective effect of p53 is an important stage in the development of many cancers – the gene goes wrong in 50 per cent of tumours. Sir David believes that treatments that turn the guardian effect back on could selectively target cancer cells, reducing side effects.
Sir David says: “Nearly three quarters of children with cancer survive their disease, but some can go on to have problems in later life as a result of their treatment. Developing kinder therapies with fewer side effects is therefore an important priority.
“Drugs aimed at restoring the guardian effect may specifically affect cancer cells and leave healthy tissue unharmed.”
Children’s cancers may be particularly suitable for treatment with drugs targeted at p53. Unlike adult tumours, in children’s cancer the gene itself is rarely actually damaged. Instead, tumour cells learn to short-circuit its anti-cancer effects. It may be easier for drugs to restore the activity of p53 in cells where the gene itself is still intact.
Sir Paul Nurse, Chief Executive of Cancer Research UK, says: “The improvement in survival for children’s cancers is one of the great success stories of cancer research. But now that many children are surviving their disease, we have to look closely at ways of improving their quality of life, by minimising the complications that some will go on to experience.
“These problems are caused because many conventional treatments work by damaging DNA – and this damage can occur in healthy tissue as well as in a tumour. Sir David is at the forefront of research into treatments that are targeted much more carefully at cancerous tissue.”
- The UKCCSG’s conference took place at the Institute of Child Health in London, December 1-4.
The UKCCSG, which has been supported by Cancer Research UK for over 20 years, has played a major role in improving treatments for childhood cancer. For cancers diagnosed in Britain from 1972-1976, before the group was established, five-year survival for children was just 42 per cent. Now survival is 72 per cent.
December 2002 was Children’s Cancer Awareness Month which highlighted the need for continuing research into prevention and treatments of the disease. Cancer Research UK spends over three million pounds each year on research into children’s cancers.