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NCRI Cancer Conference 2009: Drugging the cancer genome

by Oliver Childs | Analysis

6 October 2009

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Professor Paul Workman
Professor Paul Workman is a drug developer and Beatles fan.

The final session on a Sunday is never an easy slot to fill at any conference, but Professor Paul Workman kept the audience engrossed and engaged with a fascinating talk about ‘drugging the cancer genome to personalise cancer medicine’ – a subject we’ve written about previously.

Cancer Research UK has supported Professor Workman’s work at The Institute for Cancer Research for over a decade. His world-leading work on cancer therapeutics (he led the team that developed experimental cancer drug gefitinib) is helping us to develop the cancer treatments of tomorrow.

Evolution and The Beatles

To start his presentation, Professor Workman gave a glimpse of his musical tastes by likening the rapid progression of cancer medicine over the past 30 years to the evolution of The Beatles music.

He argued that their musical journey from the early single I Want To Hold Your Hand to their later “more sophisticated, technologically driven” work on the Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band album mirrors the “extraordinary change” that has happened in cancer medicine.

Although the comparison was light-hearted, Prof Workman’s point was important. He explained that we’re quickly moving away from one-size-fits-all treatments to “designer drugs” that are better suited to the individual.

This change is being driven by an ever-expanding knowledge of the genes and molecules that are involved in the development of cancer, coupled with technological advances that are allowing scientists to build a ‘toolbox’ to develop drugs that interact with these genes.

It was a whistle-stop tour of recent developments in the design of personalised cancer medicine. Much of the work so far has been carried out in the lab. But, excitingly, Professor Workman also showed the early results of several new drugs being tested in humans for the first time.

It was heartening to hear Professor Workman’s view that “the next 10 years will see these drugs exploding into the clinic”. But he was also keen to stress that there was much more work to be done.

This was particularly evident from his statement that “only 1 per cent of the human genome is currently drugged” – that is, scientists have only just scratched the surface of the potential genes and molecules that they could target to treat cancer.

Professor Workman concluded that “we need to expand the druggable target classes”. In other words, by harnessing both technological advances and our growing knowledge of what drives cancer, researchers need to develop drugs that interact with some of the other 99 per cent of genes we can’t already reach.