Scientists have discovered a protein which could improve the success rate of the tumour shrinking drug paclitaxel, in the treatment of ovarian cancer, a study reveals in Cancer Cell.

The researchers, funded by Cancer Research UK and the Medical Research Council, found that the loss of a protein called TGFBI caused paclitaxel to fail.

Paclitaxel, part of a family of drugs called taxanes – originally derived from yew trees – is a common chemotherapy treatment for ovarian cancer. However, only 50 per cent of patients respond well to the therapy.

The authors, based at Cambridge Research Institute, at Cambridge University, examined ovarian cancer cell lines and data from 20 patients in a prospective trial. Those who showed no response to the drug had less TGFBI in their pre-treatment samples compared to those whose condition improved. Studies after treatment revealed that death of cancer cells occurred where levels of TGFBI were high.

Ovarian cancer is one of the hardest cancers to detect at an early stage and is the fourth most common cancer in women, with 7,000 cases diagnosed in the UK each year. The study suggests that patients who lack the protein could be spared from chemotherapy which will not benefit them.

Lead researcher and clinician, Dr James Brenton, said: “TGFBI is lost in one third of primary ovarian cancers and it is possible that this protein could be used as a biomarker for selecting patients likely to respond to this class of drug.

“Our findings offer hope not only for improved ovarian cancer treatment, it may also lead to improvements in the success rate of other taxane drugs used to treat lung and breast cancer.”

Dr Ahmed Ashour Ahmed, Cancer Research UK clinician scientist, and first author of the paper, said: “Our work reveals that some proteins that surround cancer cells such as TGFBI send messages to microtubules, the backbone of the cell, sensitising them to paclitaxel. Deciphering the code by which these messages are sent will enable the discovery of new treatments that will simulate the coded messages leading to a significant improvement in paclitaxel response.”

Prof Herbie Newell, Cancer Research UK’s director of translational research, said: “We are entering a period of cancer treatment where more drugs are targeted at those people who will benefit the most. This personalised medicine approach potentially means treatments will be more effective with fewer side effects. This is really important for diseases like ovarian cancer that can be challenging to treat.”

For media enquiries please contact the Cancer Research press office on 020 7061 8300 or, out-of-hours, the duty press officer on 07050 264 059.


TGFBI or transforming growth factor beta induced is an extracellular matrix protein.

Paclitaxel stops microtubule bundles working, preventing cancer cell division.

The trial involved 20 patients who were receiving treatment at Addenbrookes Hospital.

About The Medical Research Council

The Medical Research Council is dedicated to improving human health through excellent science. It invests on behalf of the UK taxpayer. Its work ranges from molecular level science to public health research, carried out in universities, hospitals and a network of its own units and institutes. The MRC liaises with the Health Departments, the National Health Service and industry to take account of the public’s needs. The results have led to some of the most significant discoveries in medical science and benefited the health and wealth of millions of people in the UK and around the world. Find out more on the Medical Research Council homepage.

About Cancer Research UK

  • Together with its partners and supporters, Cancer Research UK’s vision is to beat cancer.
  • Cancer Research UK carries out world-class research to improve understanding of the disease and find out how to prevent, diagnose and treat different kinds of cancer.
  • Cancer Research UK ensures that its findings are used to improve the lives of all cancer patients.
  • Cancer Research UK helps people to understand cancer, the progress that is being made and the choices each person can make.
  • Cancer Research UK works in partnership with others to achieve the greatest impact in the global fight against cancer.
  • For further information about Cancer Research UK’s work or to find out how to support the charity, please call 020 7009 8820 or visit our homepage.